Please Let Grieving Parents Grieve

by Ashley Slattery

My nephew Grant passed away last year. He was only a few days old and it shook our entire family. It is honestly one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to endure, and I wasn’t even his mother. I was just his aunt.

I prayed for him constantly. I prayed for my sister-in-law and her husband constantly. I hoped that magically everything would be okay. I still remember receiving the message that they got the news right before Christmas about the pregnancy and they were trying to process it all. I remember crying immediately. I looked up flights. I contemplated spending several thousand dollars just to be with her for 24 hours so she would have someone to lean on because her husband was hurting and his world was shaken just as much as hers was.

When they went in to deliver the baby, I was a nervous ball of energy the entire time. I was thousands of miles away, wondering if I made the right decision by not flying down for the birth. I was questioning myself. I was hoping and praying for them. It was rocky as to whether or not he was even going to live through the delivery, but by some miracle, he did.

He was the smallest baby to be born alive at that hospital, and I was the happiest aunt in the world to know he made it. A few days passed and he was doing alright, better than expected in many ways, so I flew down to be with my sister-in-law.

Having had a NICU baby, we immediately starting discussing what that life was like with cautious optimism. I spent all the time up there with her or at her house with her and my brother-in-law and nephew. I flew down for the sole purpose of being there for them and doing anything I could to make life easier, but I was only there for a few days before things started to turn the opposite direction.

Being at the hospital, I was around when the doctors would talk and sometimes they’d openly just speak in front of me and it didn’t seem like an issue. Other times I wished they weren’t blocking the door to the small hospital room so I could dart out and give all of them some privacy. I wanted to be invisible and was only there to support them in what they needed and not encroach on their privacy during this delicate time in their lives.

They would get bad news and my sister-in-law’s face would fall and she would cry. Her husband was amazing during all of this, trying to comfort her and make her feel better while carrying this on his own shoulders as well. I was there playing my supporting role in case their grief and fear got too strong that they couldn’t carry it alone. It was a loss for me, absolutely, but it was a loss of a much higher degree for them.

I did everything in my power not to be sad in front of them. They would get news. They would tell me about the news. I would act strong in front of them and go bawl my eyeballs out in the bathroom until someone knocked and I felt awkward and then I would go back in there and put on a brave face and see what they needed or just sit with them in silence.

So often it seems like the people closest to the center of the grief are the ones doing the comforting and that’s what I didn’t want to happen. Grieving parents need to be able to grieve. The loss is not greater than for those individuals who are at the center of it all. It robs them of an opportunity to take care of themselves in a time when that’s all they should be focusing on and yet it happens so often.

It would not have been fair for me to break down in front of them because my sister-in-law, being the caring person that she was, would’ve immediately tried to make me feel better and that wasn’t her job. I found myself trying to keep this protective barrier around them, not wanting anyone to touch them or hurt them or force them to be strong for anyone else when they were already trying to be strong for each other and their son. I wanted to be armor for them in this situation.

I feel this sense of protection around them even now. My little nephew Grant was taken from all of us too soon, but his parents were robbed of a lifetime with their child. Their grief doesn’t go away ever. They carry it with them always despite this expectation that after all is said and done and the proverbial dust has settled, they should just be over it. They’re not. Grieving parents grieve for a lifetime and we should expect nothing else from them. Instead, our support for them should branch much farther than just the week the loss occurs.

So say his/her name. Don’t cringe when they bring their sweet child up. Remember and let them know you do. Feel for them and be there. Let them grieve, but don’t make them do it alone.