The Trouble With Saying 'I Could Never Survive That' After Child Loss

by Molly Woo
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I could never survive that.

We’ve all thought it. We’ve all said it. Absentmindedly, we brush back our child’s hair or kiss the top of their head and shudder at the story we read or heard or watched. The horror of someone else’s child dying is so repulsive to a mother that she cannot help but reflexively distance herself from it. We impulsively, collectively recite our mantra: I could never survive that.

I became a mother for the first time seven months and fourteen days ago after three long days of labor. When they laid that red-faced, 9 1/2-pound baby on my swollen belly, my world refocused on the face that had my mouth and my husband’s eyes. Through the subsequent weeks and months of sleep deprivation and crying jags, I never wanted to put him down, even as exhausted and frustrated tears streamed down my face. I have never loved anything like I love that baby boy.

So when my best friend’s teenage brother died last month, and I saw his mother shake uncontrollably at the funeral, I looked at my sweet baby, and in solidarity with mothers everywhere, shuddered and thought, I could never survive that.

Immediately, I regretted the thought.

You see, my parents have survived it. When I was 4, my sister died of SIDS. I grew up watching my parents learn to survive the loss of a child. I watched as they rediscovered normal, as they remembered how to laugh, as they took joy in me, and eventually my other sister, who was born four years later. I watched every Halloween come and go with little fanfare and gobs of grief as her anniversary passed. Every June, we celebrated her birthday with family parties at the park where we planted a tree in her name and mourned her absence.

And my parents learned to survive.

As I rock my little one to sleep, my heart hurts for my own parents and the suffering I can only now begin to fathom. For the first time, I see their grief through the eyes of a parent instead of my own grief at the loss of a sister. But instead of insisting that I could not survive it, I am grateful they did.

When we, as a unit, solemnly swear that we could never survive that, we cast a shadow on those who do. What does it say about those who survive? They never wanted to, never intended to. They would trade that survival badge in a heartbeat. No one should outlive their child, and those who do wished they hadn’t.

But they did.

They aren’t naturally stronger than you and I; they don’t have some magical quality. Their love wasn’t any less for their child than my love for mine. They woke up each morning and had no idea how they would survive it, and went to bed each night with no idea how they continued to breathe.

It’s only natural to close our eyes and repel the thoughts and stories, and there’s nothing wrong with knocking on wood or saying a little prayer. But the next time you open your mouth to recite the mantra of mothers everywhere, bite it back. It’s the unintentional insult, slung in a grieving mother’s face, heavy with the implication that her love is somehow less and laden with guilt for surviving.

Her grief may be contagious, but her circumstances aren’t. Don’t distance yourself from the horror, and by proxy, the woman. Instead, have empathy for her struggle to survive and give plenty of love. She needs it.