Some of the other losses we grieve after our child dies have to do with the relationships we had before their death.
People that we imagined would be there supporting us in our darkest hour were nowhere to be found.
No phone calls asking how we were or how they could help. Nothing.
Some of them were making demands of us, wanting us to accommodate them or comfort them. Making things more difficult instead of helping.
I read this op-ed piece a few months ago about how not to say the wrong thing to someone during a crisis situation and thought it was so good. So many people said the wrong thing. They talk about putting concentric circles around the person or people going through the crisis, labeling the larger ones with those people farther away from the epicenter of the situation. The closer the person is to the crisis, the smaller their circle. They encourage people to offer comfort and help to anyone in a smaller circle than their own, and to lament or complain or vent only to people in bigger circles. Comfort in, dump out.
Saying the wrong thing can be forgivable. Sometimes we all put our foot in our mouth, especially when we don’t know what to say. But at the end, the author points out that almost everyone knows not to dump in on the person in the middle circle. The point is that that is self-evident. It’s the other smaller circles that the author is making people aware of. Not dumping on the center circle is a “duh” thing.
But some people dumped. Even on us, in the center.
Sometimes they didn’t like how we were handling things and complained. Sometimes they would tell us about their own troubles and wanted our sympathy or comfort. Sometimes, we asked them to come and they stayed away, or we asked them to stay away and they came. They did what they wanted and not what we needed them to do. That’s dumping, too, in a way. They were using us to meet their own needs, but not ours.
And as we were struggling to keep our heads above water, more than we ever have before in our lives, those people were like dead weight pulling us under. Sometimes, we had to let them go.
If we’re honest, we might acknowledge that some of those relationships were troubled to begin with. In my case, there were a few that were always off. Always strained or unhealthy. But this crisis situation caused them to become gangrenous. We needed to cut them off before they killed us.
Some of those relationships no longer exist. Some will never be the same again.
And we have to grieve that, too.
We grieve the fact that the people we thought would be there for us were not.
We grieve the damaged or broken relationships that our tragedy left in its wake. It’s hard to look past the dumping in. Past the absence of help or phone calls. We wanted to scream, Do you have any idea what I am going through here?! Their lack of empathy was staggering, and we realized that if they couldn’t have it then, they are likely never going to have it. And we just don’t have time or energy for that kind of relationship now.
We are different people.
Sometimes those broken relationships are with people in very small circles – parents, siblings, close friends. And now we grieve the void that is left there. Holidays, birthdays, times when we would see them or want to call and talk to them, we just don’t now. We can’t.
But out of that tragedy, we have made new friendships. We may have fellow bereaved parents – a community of them or even just one – who helped us through because they understood our pain.
We may have had strangers or people we hardly knew stepping up to help us in ways we couldn’t have imagined and now our friendships with them are stronger, filling in the void left by those who abandoned us. Closing in the circles.
We have those friends and family who stood by us and supported us, and our friendships with them are strengthened.
And finally, because of our losses, we can forge friendships with other newly bereaved parents. Who else understands the agony they are feeling? Who else knows the depth of their loss if not us? Offering them comfort gives our losses a purpose, since we can help them and speak to them and listen to them in a way that many others can not.
So we do have to grieve those relationships. And the pain of them comes up again and again throughout the year as we remember what things were like before our loss.
But after we grieve them, we might need to take a good look at ourselves and realize that because of our losses and possibly even because of them, our compassion and empathy has been supercharged and our tolerance of insensitivity and unkindness from others has been greatly reduced.
And maybe that is a good thing.