People of faith who have lost a child are often seen as brave and strong.
We have been through something that no parent wants to experience: the death of a child.
We are not strong or brave. We endure because we must; we have no choice. We have other family members that need us. We have "good works which God prepared in advance for us to do". We have jobs and homes to care for. We cannot just give up, find a hole to crawl in, and quit living -- though we sometimes wish we could.
We are walking through life because that is what we do -- we go on. We live. We breathe. We work. And we attend church and school functions because we must. We know that God called our child Home and left us here on earth for His purpose. We know we must persevere and trust Him to help us and to heal us. We do not go on because we are tough or brave or strong. Because the truth is that we are none of those things. We are most often weak, and tired, and broken.
Our reality is often different than what we show our friends, our coworkers, and the public around us.
We rarely show others the true depth of our pain. It is too personal and too raw to show others who have not experienced it themselves; we know that people cannot understand the sorrow of losing a child unless they have walked this path. And we hope and pray that none of our friends ever go through what we have experienced.
The truth is that if someone you love has buried their child, they probably won't be completely open about what they're going through because they're trying so hard to just function and hold it together.
They are trying not to "lose it" in front of you.
We know how uncomfortable our pain is to others. It is a reminder that you, too, could lose a child in an accident or to an illness. It could be your child in the wrong place/wrong time or in the wrong relationship resulting in his or her death. Our pain reminds you that you could someday bury your child.
We know that our pain also makes you feel helpless -- there is nothing that you or anyone else can do to change our situation. Our child is gone. We will not see him again until our great reunion in Heaven.
For some, it reminds you that you have also lost a friend, a student or coworker. It brings up your own pain and grief when you see us cry or see the sorrow in our eyes. We don't want to cause you that pain or make you uncomfortable with our grief.
We also don't want to "lose it" because it is so hard to get control once the tears start flowing.
At first, the tears of a bereaved parent are not "healing tears". They are tears of a deep, intense sorrow like none other. They are exhausting and embarrassing. We have had friends try to comfort us and tell us it will be okay. It will not be okay! Our child is dead! As time goes on, and if we do the right kinds of "soul care" to help us heal, the tears change to healing tears. But it takes a long time.
We are afraid, sometimes, that if the tears start, they won't stop. So we try hard not to let them start.
And the tears remind us of that horrible physical grief-pain that lasted so long. We are reminded of waking up to realize this is not some terrible nightmare. It is our reality now. We are bereaved parents.
So we hide our pain.
We smile and laugh and go on living. We thank you when you tell us again how sorry you are and how much you miss our kid. We tell you we are doing well and that God is good.
God IS good. He IS faithful. He IS healing our broken hearts. We DO have joy and peace. We DO have moments of happiness and fun-filled laughter. We will be healed and go on living. But our life has changed and we will never be quite the same as we were before burying our child.
As a result, bereaved parents aren't completely honest with you. However, if we could be truly honest and vulnerable, we would tell you:
1. Don't wait for me to call you. Please call me every once in a while. I know you told me to call if I ever needed anything, but it's hard to call and ask when I am hurting so badly. I don't want to appear weak. Or pathetic. And I don't seem to have the strength to ask anyone to do things with me. Sometimes just returning a text is too hard. But I need you to keep trying, to keep calling. Call with a specific plan like "can you go to lunch at 11:30 next Tuesday?", not just "let's have lunch sometime". I will get better and want to go with you to that dinner, movie, or play some day. And if I say "no thanks" this time, I need you to ask again. I need you to call me just to chat, even when I may not feel like chatting. I need you to call me to help me remember that the world continues to turn and life goes on and that you want me to be a part of it.
2. Listen. Really listen. And please don't assume that because you read my blog or Facebook posts that you know how I feel. I don't even know how I feel sometimes! And I am not completely honest on Facebook; no one is. I may appear to be doing really well based on social media when, in reality, I am struggling. I need friends who are willing to listen to me without correction or platitudes. Listen as I talk about my kid, yet again. I will thank you for taking time to listen to me. I will appreciate your patience and caring enough to listen when I need to talk. And I will try to listen to you when you are in need.
3. Don't assume my tears are because of grief. Even though the loss of a child is not something we just get over, grief is not always what is bothering me. I may be having an "off day" because I feel ill, or because I had a disagreement with my spouse, or because we are having trouble with one of our other children. Don't assume that my issues or prayer requests are always because I buried my son. Ask me. I need you to let me have emotions and experiences that have little or nothing to do with grief. And please don't tell me it's going to be okay. Let me be honest with you about my emotions without trying to fix them.
4. Don't ask me about how I feel. That is a very hard question to answer honestly. Some days are good, some are bad. Some moments are good and the next may be terrible. Ask me what I have been doing lately or what plans I have for the upcoming week. Ask me what I am studying or what my kids are doing. Ask me almost anything, but please don't ask me how I feel. (What NOT to say to a grieving family)
5. Be patient with me and forgive me when I am rude or short with you. The death of a child changes one in ways you cannot imagine. And one does not "get over it". Not in six months, not in a year, not ever. For some, the grief lasts a very long time. Our child is frequently on our minds. We may forget for a little while, but even small things can remind us that they are gone. If I snap at you, or ignore you, or seem unhappy, please give me some grace. It is most likely not about you at all.
6. Forgive me if I am not interested in small talk. Losing a child changes our perspective regarding what is important. We don't seem to care about "trivial things" anymore. I really do want to listen to you and care about those things that matter to you. But sometimes I just don't see the point of talking about stuff I can't do anything about. My perspective has changed; time is short. I want to care about what the Father cares about. I want to care about and think about eternal things.
7. Forgive me if I am forgetful. Grief often causes what if called "Grief Brain". If I forget a date or a meeting, forgive me. And know that I am doing my best. If I supposed to be at something important, you may want to send me a text reminder. I will appreciate the help.
8. Know that I will forgive you. Don't avoid me because you don't know what to say. I will try to give you grace when you say hurtful things, because you will. We all do. We don't know what to say around bereaved parents. That's okay. I will be glad you have taken time to be with me and that you tried.
9. Talk about my child. And let me talk about him. He was a huge part of my life. He still is. It helps to talk about him. And I love that you have stories to tell me that I did not know! If I begin to tear up, know that you did not cause my pain. My child's death caused my pain. I will pull it together after a few tears or I will excuse myself and find a place for a good cry. It really is healing to know that others care about and miss my child.
10. Don't talk about my child. There are times when I just need to talk about something else. I want to hear about your family, your children, your life. I want to talk about that new study I am doing or the trip we have planned. How do you know whether to talk or not talk about my child? Listen for clues: if I ask you about your family, talk about that. If I am especially quiet, ask if I want to talk about him or ask me what I would like to talk about. (And know that I don't always know what I want.) When at social events, I sometimes just enjoy listening to others talk. Don't try to make me join in; let me have some room to just listen.
11. Give me time. Grief does not have a timetable. The loss of child is something I will be dealing with the rest of my life. I know that God is good, faithful, kind, compassionate and loving. I know that He will help me through this. But I need time. Some of us heal quickly, some take longer. Some days the burden is light; other days it is unbearable. Please ask me to participate in activities with you, but understand that when I say no, it is not about you. It may just be the grief. It may just be too hard for me right then. But please ask again. And again.
12. Church is particularly difficult. We may not know why, but we tend to get emotional at church. Even those of us who never cried at church before often cry now. It is not that we are sad in church. It is just that being in worship, singing, and being in His presence bring the emotions to the surface. For us, the reality of Heaven, Hell and life after death is more pronounced. We are often overwhelmed by God's love and greatness. By His omnipotence. By His grace and love that caused Him to send His only Son to die for me. The reality of all of this is so...well, REAL! If we cry at church, don't try to comfort us and tell us it's going to be okay or that you understand. Just let us cry. Offer a tissue and maybe a gentle hug. Allow us to worship, even through our tears. If a bereaved parent attends church alone, ask if you may sit by her. And just be near. Or better yet, offer to pick her up and let her ride with you. After service, don't make light our messed up makeup or runny nose. Give us a few moments to pull ourselves together. Again, a gentle hug and an "I love you" or "I'm sorry you are hurting. I miss him, too" goes a long way.
13. My kids are hurting. They lost their brother, their friend. They may not show it, but they are hurting. They don't want to be known as "the dead kid's sister" or "the one whose brother died". They are still who they were before with the same interests and talents. They still need to be with friends and enjoy life apart from their grief. They don't want to talk their sibling or his death and don't want you to bring it up. Except when they want you to talk about him or bring it up. Be patient with them. See items 1-12.
14. Dads hurt as much as moms, they just don't often show it. See items 1-12.
15. God is still on the throne. Though our child has died, we still know that God is God. Or maybe because we have experienced this life-changing event, we believe more strongly in the sovereignty of God. We know we are not in control; God is. Our faith may be tested, but we choose to believe. And because of our faith, we will be able to go on living. (Grateful Even in Death, Healing)
I would add to this list "Choose Life!"
One thing I have heard myself saying to my husband recently is that I want to live until I die. I don't want grief to paralyze me. It has changed me, but I don't want it to stop me from living a full and joyful life. The death of my son has made me realize how precious life is and how it can be gone in a moment. I want my friends to see how precious their children are. I want young people to stop making stupid choices. I want those I love to live a full and Spirit-filled life! I want you to know the Creator and to know that He loves you! Even when ugly things happen -- and they will happen -- God is beautiful and caring and loving and compassionate and gracious!
So choose Life! Christ said, "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life." Choose Christ and all that He is and all that He has to give! Live well, my friends. Live well.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at email@example.com.