Matters of Life and Death

After Red’s recent post regarding her ongoing grieving for her daughter, Therese, one commenter asked the following question:

Was there anything that you read or anything that anyone did for you that was particularly helpful during your immediate time of grief?

I have not experienced the loss of a baby of my own, so I hope that those who have will not find me presumptuous in responding to this question, but I wanted to share some thoughts.

My family is very upfront about illness and death. Perhaps this is because my mother’s relatives ran a funeral home, or more likely because of my parents’ faith, they felt that children should be allowed to deal with this reality of life head-on. Both of my grandmothers were from large families, and I recall a span of time when about once a year we would all pile into the car to head to a wake for a great aunt or uncle. These sad occasions were slightly softened for me by the fact that I might not know the person well, but I think they were formative in that I saw adults and children in my family grieving, I became familiar with the etiquette, traditions and rites of the Catholic wake and funeral (or I should say, the Irish kind, since even in America different cultures have different traditions in this area). The most important lesson I learned, however, was that it does matter to people that you show up, and even if you don’t know what to say, your small acts of kindness make a difference.

I point this out because I know that often we don’t do or say anything for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. There are very few wrong things to say, the saddest thing to do is just ignore the person or cut them off socially because you cannot deal with what is happening. This sounds crazy, but it happens all the time when people are terminally ill.

As I grew older, I lived these things first hand. My grandfather died after a long illness, and then both of my brothers suffered, and, thankfully recovered from, life threatening illnesses during college. Last May, my aunt died in my parents’ home after a painful year of suffering with cancer.

From those experiences, I draw the same lesson, it matters that you show up. My family was acutely aware of the small kindnesses offered during these difficult times — dropping off a funny DVD for distraction, having bagels delivered to the house one morning, cards and masses offered, more distant friends who made the effort to attend the funeral. I will say this, we are a very, very private family, and for us it was helpful that most of the things that people offered were “non-invasive.” When my brother was in the hospital, I put one helpful friend in charge of communicating all the information to the others, we were providing care around the clock and at that time I just did not have the time or energy to talk to people. With that said, every time I checked my voicemail my burden was somewhat lightened by short, caring messages my friends had left. For people who are, essentially, living at a hospital, a care package of toiletries can help, my poor cousin went about a week without deoderant because he was running from school to the hospital and never had time to get to the drug store. If someone mentions a small problem, offer an immediate, simple solution. I will never forget the friend who dug through her son’s closet for a white shirt for my little boy to wear to the funeral.

This month is the first anniversary of the death of my aunt, and my perspective from this year, and also from watching my grandmother recover from the loss of her husband, is that there is often a flurry of support right at the center of the crisis, but things can get quiet and lonely as time passes. My mother has been touched by my aunt’s friends who have called her every few months and invited her to lunch. My grandmother was relieved when she was welcomed back into the social circle from which she had been long absent while she cared for her husband. This month in particular there were masses offered for my Aunt, and it was so nice to know that she had not been forgotten.

I was surprised by the number of people who responded to Red’s post that they had lost a child as well. I am glad that Red shared her intimate feelings because it shows others that this is a safe place to talk about this loss. My grandmother had four stillborn children, and she was known to say that the love of a good man could get you through anything. This is true, but for her this loss became a personal secret, it was something that we never spoke about. It was not until I had children of my own that I understood that this also meant that she carried these four babies for nine months, and because of the health situation she knew, or at least suspected, that the baby would not survive. My grandmother also had a wonderful mother and a supportive family, but I am glad that women in our generation can also turn to friends, talk about their loss and joy in these babies, and, most of all, not be afraid to remember them.

I am also proud of Kat and Red as they have allowed their other children to know about and share in the life and death of their sisters. This is often painful, but it is truly the right thing to do. It may have been easier for my parents to get a sitter than to bring us along to funerals, taking the time to get us dressed up and to explain what was a happening, but over time, it will help these children be more compassionate when others are suffering loss.

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