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Saying the Wrong Thing – or Saying Nothing

People in your life may occasionally say the wrong thing. Some may not fully grasp that you won’t ever get over this and might say something like ‘Time heals all wounds.’ (In which case you could reply with this perceptive quote from Bob Geldof: ‘Time doesn’t heal; it accommodates.’) They may talk about their children of a similar age, citing something trivial or annoying that their child has done, as they momentarily forget you can no longer do the same. All this can hurt. Overall, however, I feel that if people care about you and mean well, you have to just let it go.

I’ve found that it’s people outside my inner circle (so acquaintances rather than friends) who are more inclined to say something clumsy or minimise your grief – and this can be upsetting. They may compare your loss to the death of their elderly parent or they may think ‘OMG’ is an appropriate response when sending you a message on hearing about the death of your child. Some may be insensitive enough to ask – as their first question – how they died. Regardless of the cause of death, this is incredibly intrusive, not to mention potentially extremely triggering. The best first question anyone (who hadn’t previously known me) has asked so far is: ‘What was he like?’

On the whole, though, grief makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. We’re not very open about it in Western society and many people are terrified of speaking to a bereaved person, especially one who has lost a child. And yes, it’s true, people will cross the road or pretend not to see you in order to avoid speaking to you. This may happen countless times. It’s galling, but it says so much about them, not you. In the grand scheme of things and in light of what you’re going through, they’re just not worth wasting too much time over. As David Kessler says: ‘What people think of your grief is none of your business.’ Nevertheless, it hurts. A lot.

Most bereaved parents eventually learn to wear a mask because  they soon realise that some people just aren’t able to handle seeing someone who has experienced a traumatic loss. We are the living embodiment of their very biggest fear. We remind them that life is fragile and unpredictable; that it can end tragically. If it’s happened to someone they know, it opens up the possibility that it could happen to them and that’s frightening. Ultimately, they want to avoid having to confront these thoughts. We may even feel we need to ‘protect’ people from this in order to be able to interact with them and to function in the world. This may sadden or anger you, and rightly so. It’s not right that those who are fortunate enough not to have gone through the extremity of pain that we have lack the compassion – or basic humanity – to acknowledge what it might be like for us. This reaction can make it feel as if losing a child is akin to having an infectious disease; it’s as if people don’t want to talk to you in case it’s contagious. 

There have now been many incidents when the death of my son has been the elephant in the room, unmentioned. And if I do bring the subject up myself in an attempt to dispel ‘the elephant’, I have found I may not get a response and what I’ve said is just ignored. Perhaps in addition to their own fears, people worry that mentioning our child will upset us – yet we want nothing more than to have them acknowledged and to speak openly about them. We need this as part of our healing and yet sometimes it’s denied to us. It seems that speaking about the death of a child is taboo. Society’s attitude towards  mental health has changed enormously in recent years, so I very much hope it will eventually change towards bereavement, and child loss in particular, because it is just so wrong to be made to feel as if there is some sort of stigma around the death of your child. In the meantime, we should never feel we have to put on a brave face just to make others feel more comfortable. Equally, we should never feel we have to answer questions about the death of a loved one just to satisfy someone’s curiosity. We have enough to deal with.

Excerpt from Love Untethered: how to live when your child dies - by Vanessa May

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