“Words can sting like anything, but silence breaks the heart.” (Phyllis McGinley)
I had experienced the death of several family members prior to that of my daughter and regularly attended funerals with my maternal grandmother as elderly church members passed away. My maternal grandfather, who I was very close to, died when I was 8. I remember crying and asking God, "Why?"...a question I would ask repeatedly, to any and every one, for years until eventually giving up the idea of it all. The coffin was so big. It was just sitting in the front of the room all alone.When no one was looking, I touched his face and it was so cold. I stared at the make-up and imagined what he would think knowing he had lipstick on. I wondered where he was; was my grandfather still in there? Family and friends surrounded my grandmother, with her quiet strength. I listened to the many condolences she was receiving and watched as she blankly responded, "Thank you." An age well before the technology craze, people came to visit, called, and sent cards for a few weeks after, but as quick as it began, it was over. We didn't talk much about it, or at least I don't remember talking about it later. I just know things were different and that I was sad. I often wonder how my grandmother felt.
Elizabeth McCracken writes in An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir, that "...my grief was still fresh, grief lasts longer than sympathy, which is one of the tragedies of the grieving..." This is so true. I've expressed it in a much less articulate manner by saying, "the time to walk on eggshells is over." (Of course this is more for the other person's behalf when they unknowingly say something insensitive. My passive-aggressive way of telling them it is ok that they said something harsh. Needless to say the point has never hit home with the offender.) But that doesn't give anyone the right to determine how one should grief or when that process is 'over'.
I wish I could say people haven't said hurtful things to me these last 13 months. As a member of the infant loss community, I have unfortunately read similar accounts of insensitive comments to the newly (or not so newly) bereaved parent. The Compassionate Friends has fliers one can forward to family members on what NOT to say*. I suspect readers of this blog will be bereaved parents or my loving friends, all of which would never say the following. It is sad, but I write the following things from personal experience; the majority were told to me from my family. (Can I reiterate how LIBERATING it is to type this and be truthful without fearing repercussions? Gotta love the anonymity of the Internet!)
1) "God has a plan" or "God needed another angel."
2) "At least you have a living child."
3) "You can always have more children."
4) "It's time to buck up"; "It's time to move on" and/or "Aren't you over this by now?"
5) "She was only six days old. It would have been worse if she were older."
6) After my miscarriage (10 months after my daughter's death), "Lots of women have miscarriages. Why would you put yourself through trying to get pregnant again?" / "Women have been having miscarriages since the beginning of time."
7) Telling stories of the horrible deaths of other children ("they were spread out all over the median" in a car wreck), followed by the showing of the newest pictures of grandchildren.
8) Telling stories of crack heads having babies only to "throw them against the wall" to which they survive only to be adopted by a wonderful family. "She how adaptable children are (said with a smile)?" This from a PhD psychologist.
9) "Give yourself six months to a year and it will be better."
10) "You are so strong. I don't know how I would survive if one of my children died."
11) "You have so much to be thankful for, why are you still upset?"
Don't get me wrong, I had support. My husband and best friend were and continue to be my rocks. I have met strangers that share similar stories who have become great friends. Lots of family have helped us immensely. There has been support. But those I expected to provide the most support were either emotionally unavailable as always or just didn't care. It hurt the most from my father, grandmother (paternal), and sister. Called, "a bitch trying to be the center of attention" a week before spreading Ellie's ashes. Told "Not everything is about Ellie and I think you like to use her to hurt people" after crying when my father put my two-year old son on a huge zero-turn lawn mower. My sister did not attend her niece's funeral for the opportunity to make $600 after visiting us in the hospital for 30 minutes and not asking once about Ellie or me. My father said once, "I think it would've been worse if she were older and died in an accident of some sort, like drowning in a pool" in response to my cries of asking why and how this had happened. Emotionally distant my therapist says. Cruel. Insensitive. Selfish. Uncaring. That is what I say. That is when they TALKED to me, never taking the initiative.
And then let's not forget the silence. Like the beginning quote states, it "breaks the heart." No calls or emails or cards. I tried pleading, anger, tears, distance, providing resources from professionals. I tried being assertive, "I need you. I am broken. Please, love me. I need to talk about my daughter." They are shocked after one year that I still grieve so often, usually externally. But still, silence. They have moved on while I am stuck.
Believe me I understand that it is hard to know what to say in the face of injustice and tragedies. Looking back I have said insensitive things or stayed away in an attempt to shield the grieving from my ignorance. People usually say things out of the best intentions. I have to believe people aren't intentionally cruel. And I truly believe what I wrote earlier, "the time to walk on egg shells in over." People should talk about babies and pregnancies and life...and death for that matter. But please don't forget Eleanor. Please. Just because it has been a little over a year since her death doesn't mean my daughter didn't exist; that she doesn't deserve to be mentioned or memorialized.
Not one family member sent a card or called or sent a gift in memory of Eleanor for Christmas OR her birthday/death day. NOT ONE. Thankfully my amazing friends more than compensated and I am continually amazed at their compassion. The silence is so much more painful than the hurtful words.
(*NOTE: Forwarding a list of what NOT to say to bereaved parents to offending family members may not be received as anticipated and in fact may piss off those that have pissed you off therefore perpetuating the vicious cycle of pissed off-ness.)