Trigger warning: child loss
I follow a few little warriors on Facebook. Now, when I say warrior, what I mean is the brave, strong, and determined children who are terminally ill and fighting for their life in ways most adults have never had to. Depending on what the news may bring with each update, I either smile from the inside out when I see their faces on my feed, or I wipe several tears as they fall down my cheeks.
I don’t know these families personally. At the same time, part of me feels like I do. When you follow a child through the highs and lows of their childhood with a terminal illness, praying for them daily, they start to hold a place in your heart that makes them feel almost like a part of one big, social media family.
One of the Facebook pages I follow, “Smiles For Baby Charley,” is one that lifts its followers’ spirits by showcasing Charley’s life and fight with childhood cancer. Though Charley’s life was cut short on November 8, 2019, it is clear that her sweet and sassy disposition was one to light up a room.
I can’t say that I understand what it’s like to lose a child to a terminal illness, but I do know the heartache of child loss nonetheless. I get what it’s like to ache for someone with such a painful longing. Because of that, there is a special place reserved in my heart for grieving parents, much like Charley’s mother, Heather.
Since Charley’s passing, Heather has kept her daughter’s legacy alive by continuing to share her life with nearly 640,000 of Charley’s followers. So when one of these many folks commented on a video that Heather had posted of Charley, it was refreshing to see hundreds of mothers, both bereaved and not, coming to her rescue. At the same time, it makes me wonder how someone like this commenter can nonchalantly be so cruel.
“Please stop that is enough of watching an angel that has [passed] on if you didn’t want to do a memorial for [her] why [torture] us everyday,” a follower commented on the video. “These personal things are for you to watch alone, not trying to be mean. I love [Charley]. Time to let go and carry her in your heart.”
As a bereaved mother myself, let me break this down for you. Because it would seem that with this one ignorant comment, amazingly enough, this “follower” has addressed nearly all of the judgment grieving parents face on a daily basis.
First off, enough with thinking you could possibly know how to grieve our child. I wouldn’t pretend that I know the first thing about what it is to mourn over the death of a parent, sibling, spouse, or friend, because I haven’t been faced with any of these losses. Please, extend that same courtesy onto grieving mothers and fathers.
It is “natural” to lose our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Although we hope it won’t happen and the loss isn’t any less painful, losing those we love who are a generation or two older than us is a natural process in one’s life. But out of every death we may experience, losing a child is the one that is the most unnatural.
It’s backwards, because it is our child who should be burying us in the years to come, not the other way around. And unless you’ve been there, you don’t get to dictate how a bereaved parent “should be” grieving.
This loss is ours, not yours, and it is just as unique and personal as the relationship we had with our child. Even if we are surrounded by thousands of people who offer support, nobody else can do the dirty work of grieving for us. We get to decide how to do that. Because quite frankly, anyone else is unqualified to hand out unsolicited advice when it pertains to this particular, very sensitive topic.
If we want to talk about our child, we will do it. If we want to share photos or videos of them with others on social media, we will do it. And if we want to speak aloud to them on those difficult days, We. Will. Do. It.
We will do whatever we have to in order to get by. Because in truth, we are just trying to survive.
Losing a child is traumatizing, and it literally rewires the brain of the bereaved. It takes time to adjust to this awful thing that was never meant to be. But when we discuss the trauma, the memories, and even our own grief, it helps us to process and reaffirm the shock of our current reality.
If hearing about our pain is too heavy for you, take a moment to imagine the burden that rests on our shoulders. Whereas your discomfort lasts until we finish the end of our sentence, or until you decide to scroll past us on social media, we are left with an open wound that will never fully heal.
Society has attempted to pressure us into hiding our pain or making it smaller to appease those who haven’t experienced such a loss. Meanwhile, bereaved parents everywhere want to scream that our child’s death isn’t about anybody else. We won’t bend to fit everyone else’s discomfort, and why would anyone want us to?
We are allowed to share our child with the world just as much as any other parent out there, and it doesn’t matter that they aren’t living. It’s not our fault that our child died and now memories are all we have left. Just like it’s not our fault that other people we cross paths with cannot process an incredibly dull ripple effect of our deep and pungent pain.
Our loss cannot be contained and carried with us in a box; it is something we wear on us always. At home, to the grocery store, in line at Target, and at work. We are always painstakingly aware that the one we lost is forever gone. The hardest part? There is nothing anybody can do or say that could make this tragedy right.
You may never fully understand, and I hope to the good Lord that you don’t ever have to, but if you care about a bereaved parent, don’t turn away. Even if their child’s death makes you uncomfortable, or you find yourself lacking the words to say, just stay.
Look them in the eye, offer to carry a portion of their hurt, and watch their heart soften as the pain is dispersed. But for the love, above all, just be kind.