The Right Thing to Say

3:16:00 PM


As soon as I entered the shop, I saw what I was looking for: an exquisite frothy cream baptismal gown. It was rather expensive but that was irrelevant. I held the dress at arm’s length, thinking about its size.

“Can I help you?” A woman with a welcoming smile approached me.

“I’m not sure this will fit.”

“How old is your baby?”

“Our baby is dead but he was full term. I want a beautiful gown to bury him in.”

The woman’s smile disappeared, her eyes filled with tears, and she enveloped me in a warm hug. “I'm so sorry. If it's too large, I can adjust it for you.”

I will always remember the shop assistant's compassion. Although I was a complete stranger, she shared in my sorrow and went out of her way to make the difficult task of buying a burial outfit for our baby as easy for me as possible.

It must be very difficult for a person to know what to say when she hears that someone’s baby has died. Generally, people are not comfortable with death and they fear saying the wrong thing. This usually results in nothing being said at all.

 A couple of weeks after our baby Thomas died, we were invited to a picnic. We didn't feel like getting together with friends, but they said, “Don’t stay at home by yourselves. It’s not a good time to be alone.” 

When we arrived at the picnic, I joined a group of women who were chatting. 
They said hello to me and then resumed their conversation. No one mentioned Thomas. I could feel a couple of women taking furtive looks at me while they talked. Did they notice the tears threatening to fall from my eyes? And then Carol arrived. She walked straight up to me, touched my arm and said, “Sue, I don’t know what to say but I have to say something. I can’t ignore what happened. I’m so sorry.”

The ladies at our local shop are always very friendly. When I ventured out shortly after Thomas’ death, they were eager to hear news of his birth. (They didn't know our baby was unlikely to live after delivery.) When I told them Thomas had died, the words, "Oh, you have a saint in heaven!” sprang to one woman’s lips. It was a reaction that I was to hear many times over the following weeks. It sounds like a comforting thing to say, but I must admit that it didn’t help me at all in those early days.

A couple of weeks after Thomas died, I was cleaning our Venetian blinds. I bumped them from one side of the window frame to the other, in time to my intense, angry thoughts. Suddenly, I hurled my cloth into the bucket of water and stormed out of the room in search of my husband, Andy. I yelled these words at him: 

“If having a saint in heaven is such a fantastic thing, why doesn’t everyone want one? Would anyone swap their newborn for a saint? Of course not!”

In time, I came to realize, for myself, the gift of having our own saint in heaven. I thanked God that Thomas had lived long enough to be baptized and so we are assured that he is in the presence of God. But this appreciation came slowly over a period of time. In the beginning, the words, “You have a saint in heaven,” sounded like a platitude said by those who had no idea what we were going through.

Thomas had a diaphragmatic hernia which allowed many of his internal organs to move into his lung cavity. With that cavity occupied, there was no room for Thomas’ lungs to grow and he was born with only a fraction of his intended lungs. They were too small to allow independent respiration. Because Thomas’ body was imperfect, some well-meaning people have said, “His death was all for the best.” But how could it be for the best when my heart was breaking?

Six weeks after Thomas’ death, my grandmother came to visit.

“How are you?”

“Not very good.”

“It was all for the best.”

“No!”

“I had a daughter, Angela, who was a year older than your mother. When I was pregnant, I fell down the stairs and the baby’s spine was broken. Angela died when she was three weeks old.”

Later, I questioned my mother, “Why didn’t you tell me you had another  sister?”

“I didn’t know,” she replied. My grandmother had carried her heartbreaking story inside her for over 55 years.

In an effort to comfort me, a few women have confided that they too have lost babies. Hearing their stories made me feel less alone. I wanted to hear all the details: Were their experiences similar to mine? Did they feel like I did? Would this deep ache of grief ever go away?

In the early days after Thomas died, the phone rang frequently. It was usually the same few friends. We had an understanding: If I needed to talk, I would come to the phone, but if I wanted to be alone, then a message could be given to the caller to say I wasn’t up to chatting. This system worked very well. My friends’ feelings weren’t hurt if I didn’t want to speak. They didn’t have to worry that their call would be unwelcome. I didn’t have to be anxious every time the phone rang.

Gradually over the weeks, the phone rang less and less. Sometimes, feeling sorry for myself, I felt forgotten: Everyone else had gone back to their own lives thinking we were coping with ours. But every now and then, someone would feel inspired to pick up the phone and dial our number just at the right time. There were many days where I'd sink into a deep pit of grief unable to pull myself out. Then the phone would ring and a friend would ask, "How are you doing?" Those words were a lifeline. They dragged me back from despair.

Similar lifelines appeared with the unexpected arrival of friends on our doorstep. One ‘bad day’ Gail stopped by. “I hear you have a special memory box for Thomas. Would you mind sharing it with me?” Gail had lost a son a few years earlier. Soon we were swapping stories about memory boxes. We even laughed when Gail told me how she’d photographed every casserole baked for her family, in the days following their loss. “I had to make memories out of something. There wasn’t much to show that our son existed. I didn’t have a baby to photograph, so I took shots of funeral flowers and casseroles.”

I will always be grateful for our loving friends who supported us after Thomas’ death. Sarah, in particular, wasn't afraid to talk to me. She didn’t deny my feelings or try to cheer me up by asking me to ‘look on the bright side’. She gave me opportunities to talk, showing remarkable patience as I worked my way through the same story over and over again. And she always knew the right thing to say.

The right thing to say? What if I'd never experienced grief? Would I be able to find the right thing to say? Probably not. 


Even now, after experiencing intense grief, there are times when imperfect words stumble across my lips. And so I try to remember that sometimes we have to ignore words. 
The right words can help, but when they are absent, it doesn't mean people don't care. 

Look into my eyes. Feel my hug. Can you see my love and compassion? Even though I can't find the right words, I do care.


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2 comments

  1. I read this last night, and I was weeping when I finished. I cannot imagine. :( I truly am sorry for your loss... I would not wish that on anyone. I think of my daughters, and I cannot imagine the pain. I think they would have to put me in a padded cell... because I don't think I could endure it. Sue I think you are so brave and strong. You amaze me lady! I hope to be able to meet you one day and just give you a big hug.. I am so proud to call you 'friend'. My hubby asked me (last night) why I was crying.. and I told him about Thomas. He looked upset, shook his head sadly, and walked in the next room. He literally had no words. It's hard to know what to say. But my heart aches at your story. And I wish I could do something. One thing I CAN do, is pray. <3

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  2. Susan,

    If you'd known me 12 years ago, you wouldn't have called me brave. I was so frightened. I thought I'd never be able to endure the pain. And I begged and begged God to spare me this trial. But He didn't and I found out that all things can be endured with His help. I am certain that you would have survived too if it had happened to you and not me.

    Losing a baby is one of the hardest experiences a mother will ever live through. It's a pain I wish I could shield every mother from. I know the depths of that sorrow and the near despair. But I also know the great love of God and He has taught me many things such as trust and compassion. I think of those mothers who didn't know what to say to me all those years ago, those mothers who caused me pain with their words and actions. They didn't mean to hurt me. They just couldn't imagine what I was going through. And now I am grateful that (hopefully) I can help others a little because I have been there and understand. At least I know a few things NOT to say!

    Thank you Susan for reading my Thomas stories. I very much appreciate you taking the time to share my son.

    God bless!

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