A member of David's family made a comment over the weekend that hurt me a lot. I'm still rolling it around, and flinching at the way it continues to bruise. It was not mean-spirited, or said with malice. It was one of those things people say when they are trying to make sense of something that doesn't make sense, and they're trying to fit an unthinkable truth into a narrative that they are comfortable with, and they're speaking from their perspective instead of trying to understand how you feel, because inhabiting your perspective would be too hard and too scary and too painful.
This person said, in regard to Eliza, "If it had to happen, it's better that it happened when it did. Because it would be so much harder to lose a child when they are one or two and you've gotten to know them and their personality, you know?"
I wasn't actually part of the conversation. It was between David and this family member, and it was a major step that anyone was actually talking about Eliza, because his family has not been the greatest about that kind of thing, and I was sort of half-listening to the conversation while also messing around on the iPad (because Pinterest is a priority in my life, people). I was proud of David for the things he was saying about Eliza, and I was touched that this family member was saying her name and acknowledging our loss, and then suddenly he went on and said that, and my throat just closed up and my heart felt like a cold hunk of raw meat thudding against my chest.
I held my breath, waiting to hear what David would say.
He made a noncommittal noise, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, and deliberately shifted the subject to talk about her memorial tree.
I took a deep breath. And then I let it go. At that moment, I couldn't articulate an argument that made sense, even in my own head. But I wanted to scream "NO! It's not like that! It's not that easy! That comparison doesn't even WORK!"
I understood why David did not engage with this person. As nice as this guy is, he'd be the first to admit that he's opinionated and aggressive, and he's prone to talking about subjects at great length, and unless David truly wanted to engage in an hour-long pseudo-philosophical debate about the hypothetical "betters" or "worses" of child loss, there was no point in disputing his comment. I didn't blame David for not openly disagreeing with him, and I certainly didn't want to speak up.
But I wish he knew that he is wrong. That he is SO freaking wrong.
The problem is, I used to think the same thing. That it would be easier if you'd never known the baby. How attached can you get to a child you never actually met outside your belly? How attached can you get in just a few hours at a hospital? Certainly it would be easier to lose a baby you've barely known than to lose a baby to SIDS, or a toddler to leukemia, or a grade-school child to a hit and run car accident, right?
The truth is, there is no "better" time for a child to die. It would be horrifying to lose a child who is ten days old. Four months old. Two years old. Six years old. Sixteen. It would be stunning and traumatizing and soul-scorching, and the recovery would be arduous and agonizing. There is absolutely no disputing that. I would never suggest that my loss is harder or worse than someone else who has lived through the death of their child. Heartbreak is heartbreak, and there is no point in trying to compare.
Still, it was a revelation to me that it would be equally terrible and heartbreaking to have a much-loved and much-wanted baby who never got to come home. I know, because I tried to rationalize it in my own head in those early days, trying to figure out some way to endure what I'd always imagined I couldn't survive. I looked for that elusive silver lining. I tried desperately to believe that this horrible, darkened, depleted version of my life was somehow better than some other version might have been. Was this easier than having her die later? "At least..." I would think, "At least..." But there was no way to finish that sentence. Why did she have to die at all? "At least she never felt any pain." That was the best I could do.
We'd all agree in general that "quick and painless" is better when it comes to the type of death, but I cannot find a method of evaluating the timing of the loss of a child that makes it one bit easier or better than any other day or year. Two months. Twenty-six years. Any parent who outlives their son or daughter will tell you that they weren't given enough time.
What I'm trying to say is that the fact that she died before she was born did not, in fact, make her loss better or easier. Just different. But equally sad.
The truth is, there's a dark, twisty part of me that envies parents who have memories of live babies, laughing babies, quiet time rocking or nursing, bubble baths and pink pajamas, even if those babies later died. You see, I lost those things, too, but I never got to have them to begin with.
Our house felt so empty when we came home without Eliza, despite the fact that she'd never really been there. It would have been different, certainly, if a baby monitor had suddenly gone silent, if our kitchen was stocked with bottles or sippy cups, if there had been a load of her laundry in the dryer. But just because she hadn't ever slept in her room, or crawled across our floors, or splashed in our bathtub, that didn't make being home without her better or easier. It was as hollow and crushing and painful as any other loss. And anyone who thinks differently is wrong.
David and I can talk now about my pregnancy with Eliza, and remember some of the sweet moments with a smile. But we don't have shared memories of her alive. We don't have stories to tell about her with our families. We can't reminisce about the time she did this or that. We have no good times that include Eliza on the outside. It's such a lonely ache, to love a child who never got to live.
And it hurts to have that ache diminished by someone who insists that it's better or easier this way.
It comes down to this: There is no better when a child dies. Not for the people who are left behind.
Not knowing her personality does not make our loss easier to bear; it adds its own particular brand of pain. We'll never know. We're simply left to wonder. As long as we live. Far from making it easier to let her go, not having been able to know her is its own special brand of torture.
And we will so often encounter people--people who love us, people who would have loved Eliza, people who are kind and well-meaning--who will fail to understand or properly honor our loss because they want to believe it was better that it happened like it did.
I tell myself that it's not my responsibility to educate everyone I know. It's not my job to have to coach everyone and explain over and over again what we're feeling. I can't change people's minds, and I certainly can't change their world-view. Many people say that others will never understand unless they've been there, and while I disagree with that to a point (I think there are people who are incredibly understanding even though they've never suffered a loss like this), I get where they're coming from. So many people just don't GET IT, and they don't really try to. And you can't go around insisting that everyone respond to your loss exactly the way you want them to (exactly the way they should), all of the time. It would be impossible and exhausting and you'd make yourself crazy.
So I took another deep breath and sat quietly, staring at Pinterest until the knot in my throat loosened, and I half-listened as the conversation took its course and they moved on without this gross misperception being corrected or disputed.
I told myself that I do not need to assert my point of view all the time, that it's not my job to correct him. I told myself that ultimately it doesn't matter what this one person thinks, even if he is totally incorrect, and even if his comment seems to diminish our loss. Eliza was real and our pain is real, and I do believe this person understands that, and that's what is most important.
I told myself that staying quiet was a means of self-preservation and keeping peace in the family.
I told myself that keeping silent was not a betrayal of my daughter.
But still, a little bit, it feels that way.
I mean, seriously. Better? The only thing that would fucking be better is to have not lost her at all.