If you love someone, really love them, it’s generally pretty easy to share in their joy when something good happens to them. It’s easy to give them a hug or throw them a party or smile proudly while they share their news with someone else. It’s easy when you love them; it’s easy because you love them.
But even when you love someone, even when you really love them, it’s not always easy to share in their pain when something bad happens to them. I don’t know why this is. It makes loving people tricky, because there is no one on earth who has only good things happen to them all of the time.
A lot of my friends have kids, I’m at that age, and almost daily I am invited to share in someone’s joy: a pregnancy! A birth! A milestone reached! It’s an amazing stage of life to be in. A stage of life. Newness and excitement and hope and promise. A time to celebrate each other and give hugs and throw parties and smile proudly while good news is shared.
But this happiness is tempered with a sad bit of reality: this stage of life is also a stage of death. This stage of hope and excitement is also a stage of waiting and disappointment. This stage of promise and newness is also a stage of crushed dreams and sudden endings.
A room full of friends explodes with excitement when a woman shares that she is expecting. Everyone knows what to say: “How far along are you?” and “How are you feeling?” and “I’m thrilled for you!”
The same room is silent when a woman shares that she has just lost a baby. The room is silent and the room stays silent because no one knows what to say. Because grief is hard and awkward and maybe everyone is afraid that they’re just going to make it worse.
So we do a lot of tiptoeing. We try, we really do. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we don’t know how to care. Maybe for a week or even a month we remember to check in and ask questions. Maybe we’re afraid to say something wrong so we don’t say anything at all.
And then, I’ve noticed, we suddenly decide that the grieving period is over. We decide it, not them. We don’t ask them if it is, we assume for them that it is. Because it’s been a little while now. Or because they seem fine, or because they’re smiling again, or because they’re pregnant again and this baby seems to be doing fine, or because they have two other healthy, happy children, or because…
Honestly? I think it’s because we want it to be over and for things to be normal again. So we decide it is. Even though, for a lot of these people, it’s not over. It might never be over.
I have these people in my life, in abundance. You do too, even if you don’t know about it. Women who have had miscarriages, stillbirths, who have lost infants, women who have struggled through infertility, those who still struggle through it and those who have finally given up on the dream of having biological children. Women whose babies have been diagnosed with hard medical things, in the womb or out of it. Women whose grief is not related to their children but who struggle to parent under the weight of something else. The list is even longer than that and includes so many different circumstances and trials and heartaches. Grieving moms and grieving women – they are literally everywhere. We should be better at loving them.
The baffling part for me is that I’ve been there, if only for a short time – a lot of us have – so I feel like I should know what to say, know what to do. I should know better than to think that they’re ‘over it’ after a month of crying it out. I should know which words hurt and which ones help. I shouldn’t be afraid of their heartache. I shouldn’t forget them.
But I do and I am and I have.
I’m picturing specific people while I write this, with a mixture of sadness and guilt. Some of them will read this, some won’t. I’m close with some of them, and some of them exist on the fringe of my life and probably wouldn’t even suspect that they’re on my mind right now. Are you picturing someone too?
It’s been so heavy on my heart lately as I observe the highs and lows of loss and life around me. As one friend announces a pregnancy and another friend confides in me that she’s lost her baby just a few weeks in. I’m trying to navigate it well but I feel like I’m failing. I want her to know that I’m there for her but I don’t want to intrude. I want her to know that I care but I don’t know how to show it.
Grief confuses me; it wants everything. It’s all over the place. It wants people to know and remember it, but it doesn’t want to be the center of attention all the time, but some of the time, but sometimes not at all. It wants to be reminded of the good things in life, it wants to be sad, it wants to be distracted. It wants to scream, it wants to be quiet, it wants lots of people around, it wants to be left alone. It doesn’t know what it wants. I dislike grief. I understand why we want it to be gone and over, even though it’s such a necessary thing. It’s inconvenient. It’s awkward. It’s painful. We like easy things, don’t we?
For all of the things that grief is, it is not and never has been easy.
There isn’t a list that I can write about it that we can send around the Internet to help us with our grieving friends. There’s not Ten Things You Need to Do For Your Grieving Friend. There’s not Fifty Things You Should Never Say to Someone Who’s Had a Miscarriage or Twenty Easy Ways to Make Your Infertile Friend Feel Included At Baby Showers. I know people have tried to write those lists, but they’re mostly useless. Everyone grieves differently and everyone wants to hear different things and what makes you sad might actually make someone else feel better. One person might write such a list with absolute conviction that they are right because they have been there, and another person who has also been there might disagree with every point. And here’s a cruel little twist: the same person might grieve differently today than they did yesterday or even this morning. They could sit and write lists and lists and lists of what to do and what not to do, only to find that five minutes later their own words are all wrong.
I walk from my car to my house at night after a difficult coffee with a deeply hurting woman and look up at the sky and it seems very black and big and full of heavy rain clouds and it’s startlingly familiar. Where have I seen this before? Oh yes. Across the table at the coffee shop tonight in a pair of eyes. I stand still and just stare up and out, like there’s an answer in it. I would like an answer, please.
And there is an answer. The answer is that there’s not an answer. Not an answer. There are a million answers. Because there are a million people. And each person has their own answer. And to find their answer, obviously, you need to ask them a question.
Everyone will have a different answer, and no one’s answer will be static; it will be fluid and changing. Their answer will be loud one day and almost silent the next. There might be days where they won’t even know their own answer and they might need you to help them figure it out. It will be hard work. But if you’re not working hard at your relationships anyway, what’s the point?
And maybe asking the question is the hardest part. Like opening a heavy door, or jumping off a diving board. Maybe the answers that follow the question will lead to good conversations about grief and loss and sadness. Conversations about the things that people say when they know you’re grieving. About outlets and memories and dreams and the future, and maybe the conversations will go on for hours and hours.
They should, I think. These conversations should keep going on for hours and hours and days and years. We should talk about grief. We should ask questions and listen to peoples’ answers. We should get better at loving people who are going through hard things. We shouldn’t forget them or be afraid of their sadness or let them feel alone or inconvenient. We should be as good at mourning with our friends as we are at rejoicing with them.
It should be easy because we love them.