How To Talk To A Parent Who Has Lost A Child

This originally appeared on Mamamia. Republished here with permission.

The soul destroying agony of your child dying is only truly known and understood by those who have endured it. Four years on, I still glance down at my daughter’s grave in disbelief. Visiting my child’s grave is surreal. It’s almost like I’ve vacated my body and I’m watching someone I don’t know standing there putting flowers down.

Is this really my life?

Only a parent understands the powerful bond you have with your child; that absolute undying love you have and that monumental desire that roars like an open fire inside you to protect that child at all costs. It is openly said that a parent will lay down their life for their child, but it is not until you have your own that you truly understand these fierce emotions. Parenting is wearing your heart on the outside of your body. Whatever you imagine it might be like to have your child die, multiply that by about a trillion and you’re probably not even close.

On the surface it appears society is accepting of this unbearable sadness and people are supportive and open to talking about it. However, in my situation, I’ve been surprised by people’s genuine kindness and empathy as much as I’ve been repeatedly shocked and disappointed by their lack of it. It’s necessary for bereaved parents to be able to talk openly. I’ve found it’s the only thing that dispels the trauma.

Sure, friends and family have been supportive, but it seems there is a mandate for how long their unwavering support, patience, understanding, concern, and empathy lasts. The truth is, the situation is so unbearably sad that it becomes too emotionally draining on the other person.

The realization that they can’t fix your sadness sets in, the frustration builds because not even they can see an end in sight, then gradually it starts to impede on the happiness in their life. They haven’t lost their child so why should they spend all their time feeling sad about yours?

I will, for the sake of all the other parents out there with empty arms, write 10 things I wish people knew about the loss of a child. Maybe one of my points will make a difference to a bereaved parent’s life.

1. Four years on I get up every day with the exact same sadness I had the day Ella died. The only difference is I’m more skilled at hiding it and I’m much more used to the agony of my broken heart. The shock has somewhat lessened, but I do still find myself thinking I can’t believe this happened. I thought that only happened to other people. You asked how I was in the beginning yet you stopped, why? Where did you get the information on what week or month was good to stop asking?

2. Please don’t tell me that all you want is for me to be happy again. Nobody wants that more than I do, but it’s something that can only be achieved with time. On top of that, I have to find a new happiness. The happiness I once felt, that carefree feeling, will never return in its entirety. It also helps to have the patience and understanding from loved ones.

3. Please don’t say “I want the old Sam back!” Or, “I can see the old Sam coming back!” Sam’s not coming back. This is who I am now. If you only knew the horror I witnessed and endured, you would know it’s not humanly possible for me to ever be the same person again. Losing a child changes who you are. I’ve been told my eyes look haunted.

There is nobody that misses the “old Sam” more than me. But I’m mourning two deaths here; my daughter’s and my former self.

4. If you chose to acknowledge my daughter’s birthday or the anniversary of her death on the first year, it’s terribly gut wrenching when you didn’t bother to acknowledge the second or third or fourth. Do you think any subsequent birthday or anniversary is not as sad for me? It also says to me in very big neon lights that you’ve moved on and forgotten about my daughter.

5. Please stop with the continual comments about how lucky I am to have my other children, particularly my daughter. Do I say this to you? Then why say it to me? I’ve buried my daughter, do you seriously think I feel lucky?

6. It’s not healthy to cry in front of the kids? You’re wrong. It is perfectly healthy that they see I’m sad over their sister’s death. When someone dies, it’s normal to cry. What would not be normal would be for my children to grow up and think “I never even saw my Mom sad over Ella’s death.” That would paint me in a light that would tell them it’s healthy to hide your emotions when obviously it’s not.

7. I have four children I don’t have three. If you want to ignore Ella as my third child because she’s dead go for it, but don’t do it for me. Four not three.

8. There are still some days, yes four years on, that I still want to hide away from the world and take a break from pretending everything is oh so wonderful and I’m all better. Please don’t assume I’ve thrown in the towel, or worse, actually be so thoughtless as to wonder what’s wrong with me. I still know I’ve married the catch of the century and my children are gorgeously divine and I have a beautiful house, but I’m grieving.

It’s mentally exhausting, especially raising three young children and on top of that maintaining a strong and loving marriage. Unbeknownst to you, I’m dealing with not just my own grief, but my beautiful husbands’ and my two boys’.

It would be nice if you congratulated me on the state of my family because keeping it together, stable and happy, has been hard work.

9. I did notice. To the friends and family that found the entire death and dealing with my sadness all too hard and held secret events behind our backs that were lied about, stopped inviting us to things we had always been included in, and slowly ended our relationship thinking I didn’t notice: I did notice.

The only reason why I never said anything is because I’m not wasting my words on your shameful behavior. I am thankful for something though—I didn’t waste any more time on people who were capable of such shallowness and cruelty. Please don’t fear. I would be the first one by your side if the same thing happened to you. That should give you some indication of how horrible it is.

10. Grieving for a child lasts until you see them again. It’s a lifetime. If you’re wondering how long your friend or family member might be grieving for, the answer is forever. Don’t rush them, don’t trivialize their sadness, don’t make them feel guilty for being sad, and when they talk to you, open your ears and listen, really listen to what they’re telling you. It’s possible you’ll learn something.

I’ve been left repeatedly heartbroken as friends I truly loved tossed me into the “too hard” basket or—more hurtfully—the “crazy” basket. Phone calls stopped, text messages stopped, comments on Facebook stopped, and I get the same thing every time. “Sorry, darling, I’m just flat out,” “Let’s catch up soon” and “I miss you.” The list could keep going, but I get it. I’m not the type of person who is going to pursue a friendship I know the other person doesn’t want. Everyone has a conscience and thankfully I don’t have to live with theirs.

The bottom line is people are uncomfortable with the situation and I really don’t know why. My feelings tell me it is such a horrific thing that most people don’t want to know about it. Maybe they fear through knowing so much they might become obsessed with their own children dying. Parents worry enough about their children already. Do they really need the added worry about knowing how your child died?

Without question, my daughter Ella dying suddenly has been the worst thing that has happened in my 37 years here on Earth. I doubt that anything in my future is going to top it. Actually, just between us, I beg and plead with God on a daily basis that nothing ever does top that experience, but the truth is, I just don’t know.

What I’ve endured, losing my little girl, has been so unimaginably horrific that I don’t think I would survive something like it again. What I have had to give emotionally to get through it has dwindled away all my mental strength.

I’m emotionally broke, not broken. I know all the energy I’ve needed over the last four years has not just been spent on my grief for Ella. It’s also been on trying to get my friends and family to understand what it’s like to walk in my shoes. I’m angry about that. When I should have been grieving, I was defending myself.

I’m probably very close to being as angry about that as I am about her death.

Samantha Hayward is at stay-at-home married mom with four children. Tragically, four years ago, her eldest daughter Ella died suddenly at 19 days to undiagnosed Viral Myocarditis.

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