Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Words aren't enough (a letter to a friend)

Friends of a dear friend of mine just lost their very young daughter to cancer. I have never met them, but my heart breaks for them. My friend asked me for any advice I had for her in terms of helping her friends. By no means do I want to be the "expert" on losing a child. I know for certain that all parents have very different grief experiences. But I do feel that I wanted to be helpful if I could. In fact, I feel a pretty big responsibility because if there's anything that I can do to make a broken-hearted parent's road a little easier (even if it's just by telling their friends to listen and be supportive), I want to do it.

So I wrote this incredibly long letter (and I've omitted the names since I feel that sharing their story is for them to do), but I am left wondering if I've forgotten something or if there's something different I should have said??

Dear Friend,
I’ve been thinking a lot about your friends.  My heart feels for them.  I know that their sweet girl is in a better place free from pain and sickness now; yet I know that we all want our children here with us, and it is heartbreaking to face our days without them right here.
Ultimately—just like everyone else—I don’t know what will be most comforting to them as they remember their sweet daughter and mourn her loss and get day to day without her now. It is so painful, I do know.  I don’t know the perfect way to comfort her so please know that everything I write is just based on my own life and thoughts.  But I can share that, for me, I had times when the only thing I wanted to do was write about Miles, then I wanted to read everything possible about grief and about other parents who had lost children, then I wanted to talk to a therapist, then I wanted to write a “life with loss” blog, then I wanted to find quotes and passages that I felt represented how I was feeling, then I wanted to have traditions to honor Miles’ memory, then I needed friends who would recognize that Miles is always part of who I am.  Mitch often wanted to listen but didn’t want to have to say much; other times, he wanted to just tell me about a particularly sad instance or something that reminded him of Miles. Perhaps they will find those things comforting at times as well; perhaps not. 
I do know that grief can be very isolating, and I am very thankful that they have you as friends to stand by them and to cherish and remember their sweet girl with them.  Life will always be different for them.  She will always be with them, and she’ll always be missing from their family; it’s a hard road. Losing her is the biggest loss (and the one that matters the most), but there are secondary losses that are really difficult as well.  The friends who we cherish most now are the ones who continue to remember Miles with us (even in simple ways) and to know that he is permanently part of who we are. 
One thing I’ll mention can be pretty sensitive but I’ll state in my own experience: I believe that God received Miles with open arms but did not want him to die. God loves us very much yet does not control every detail of life. A brief look around the world shows how much pain and heartbreak there is; I just can’t believe that all of this would be part of his plan. “Everything happens for a reason” is just the most ridiculous thing I can imagine now; I have come to terms with the fact that often there simply is not a reason for things. In short, it was not God’s plan for Miles to die. Any mention otherwise is upsetting and wrong to me. Others, however, find comfort in believing that all happenings including the death of a child are part of God’s plan; I do try to respect that we all have different views on this.  Obviously, you’ll have your own views on this as will your friends, but I just thought that it was worth mentioning because I know that faith is thankfully a big part of all of your lives.
I’m quite sure that “time heals all wounds” won’t be true for me at all, so I won’t say that things will ever be “better” for parents who lose children.  But your friends will find a “new normal,” they say.  She is forever a part of who they are. And I think that your friendship will help them as you’re there to listen, to be by their sides, and to remember her, too.

P.S. As I mentioned on the phone,  please trust your instincts on how best to be a good friend to them now. You are the best, and you did (and continue to do) all of the right things with me. You are such a good listener, and this is the best gift you can give them.  A few last notes…

A few simple things we’ve done that are important to us:
-We started a basket for cards. All of the cards we’ve every received offering supporting or expressing condolences are in there. It’s good to see the basket of cards and be reminded of the people out there thinking of us and thinking of Miles. I imagine it being good to be able to read those cards again someday…though I haven’t actually done it.
-Write down specific memories. We’ll never forget. He’s our child. However, having the memories written is such a good thing to have on special days in the future. It’s important to me to be able to read my book about Miles on his birthday especially.
-We give a special Christmas gift in memory of Miles each year. It’s awful. I would much rather give him be here and to give him a real gift of course. But it’s the best we can do; honoring his memory is a way to make him part of our Christmas traditions. Last year we gave a donation to the Ronald McDonald House. This year we gave books to children at the hospital.
-Make traditions that make you as happy as possible in remembering his memory. We have angel food cake on his birthday. For me, it’s important that everyone feel ok about being happy remembering his birth and how happy we were to have him. Yes, there’s much sadness too because he should be here actually celebrating, but the day he joined our world was joyous.
-Doing what you can is enough. Though it went against every Southern bone in my body, I didn’t write thank you cards for gifts people gave in memory of Miles. That’s really ok. When I could I thanked them in person mostly because this was a good way to show them that it was good to talk to me about Miles. Other times, people wanted to “distract” me from my grief by doing some kind of nonsense. This was absurd. I said “no” plenty if it wasn’t going to be something that felt right to me; I had to teach myself not to feel guilty about that.


So that was the letter. Ultimately I know that I can "fix" nothing for these parents. The one thing that they want--their daughter healthy and in their arms--cannot be. Still I want so much to share with my friend what can help her since she asked...what am I forgetting...what else needs to be said? There's so much that I want for the world to know about being knowledgeable and compassionate when interacting with parents who have lost children...and now I feel that this letter needs to address everything! Ridiculous and way too loaded, I know, but it's like now that I have the chance, it's like words aren't enough. 

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