Friday, October 14, 2011

Go Ahead, Make Me Cry

Someone asked me the other night if I would appreciate it if other people who knew about Eliza, but with whom I'm not super close--people I don't know very well, or someone with whom I had a professional relationship, like my doctor, or dentist, or financial advisor--would mention Eliza or acknowledge her birthday when it gets closer.  She wanted to know if I would want them to say something to me, or if that acknowledgement would upset me.

The answer was yes to both.

Yes, of course I want people to acknowledge my daughter.

Yes, talking about her upsets me, in the sense that it makes me cry.  But it doesn't make me angry or sad (-er than I already am).  It just allows me to acknowledge those feelings.  And that's a gift.

We know it's bad to make people cry.  We don't want people to be upset.  We are culturally and biologically conditioned to feel bad when we hurt someone, physically or emotionally.  We see that hurt when it shows up in the form of tears, so, naturally, we want to do everything we can to avoid making people cry.

A few years ago, I was at a wedding for one of David's cousins.  David's dad was there with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, and I knew that her dad was really sick.  I hadn't gotten the chance to talk to her all day, so as we were walking through the buffet line at the reception, filling our plates with caesar salad and potatoes au gratin, I asked Michelle how her dad was doing.  She set her plate down on the edge of the buffet and burst into tears.

Her dad was dying.  And I had just made her cry.

I felt terrible.

She had been fine all evening.  She seemed to be having a good time.  And then there I went and opened my big mouth, bringing up a "sore subject," upsetting her in the middle of a nice reception, when she should be enjoying herself.  I felt so bad.  I told David later that I didn't know what I was thinking, but I never should have said anything.  I hated to see her so upset.  And it was all my fault.

Yeah, I see now how stupid that was.  Her tears had nothing to do with me.  Maybe my question brought them to the surface, but they'd been there all day long, through the ceremony, through the picture-taking, through the introduction of the wedding party.  They'd been there for weeks--ever since her dad got the cancer diagnosis.

My question did not remind her of something she had forgotten.  Yes, she might have held the tears in all night long if nobody had mentioned her dad, but that question came from a place of sympathy and concern and it was the right thing to ask, even though I didn't realize it at the time.

The truth is, I was embarrassed by her tears, and I felt like I'd done something wrong.  But why shouldn't she cry?  Her dad was dying!  He was young and the only parent she had left and she was terribly sad.  Of course she would cry about it.  Maybe the timing was awkward (I seem to have a knack for tearful encounters at the salad bar), but all my question did was open the way for her to release a sadness and emotion that had been building up all day long.

Here's what my therapist says:  Crying is not a negative reaction.  It releases sadness; it does not create it.

Too often, our friends, co-workers, acquaintances, are often so worried about not wanting to upset us, not wanting to see us cry, that they avoid mentioning any topics that might be upsetting (just like I did with Stephanie and her mom).

But the people who are truly concerned for us, they don't try to keep our tears away.  They sit there in the midst of them with us.  As uncomfortable and awkward as it might feel.

Being truly kind to people who are grieving isn't about not making them cry.  It's about letting them cry.

I really wanted to communicate that to the person who asked me if it would be appropriate for an acquaintance, casual or professional, to mention Eliza.

So this was my answer:

I would appreciate any acknowledgement of my baby.  It might make me cry, but that doesn't mean that it was inappropriate.  It means that you are acknowledging the greatest tragedy of my life and I am responding to it the only way I can--with a grief that is as deep as my love for her.  I am grateful that you gave me the chance to do so.

(Perhaps I should get this printed on business cards, so I can hand them out to people while I dig around in my purse for a tissue and choke back sobs.)

I can't show off a parade of photos, I can't tell you how much she's grown, I can't tell you how many teeth she has, or how close she is to walking.

But I can show you that I love her so much, the mere thought of having to exist without her here brings me to tears every time.

I'm not going to lie--sometimes I feel totally embarrassed after I've cried in front of someone.  I've cried in front of the chair of the English department at my new job.  Twice. I've cried in front of my advisor from graduate school.  On the phone with insurance companies.  In the office of every doctor I've seen since I lost Eliza, and sometimes in the waiting room.  I cried in line for security at the airport when we were leaving for Canada because I was so sad we weren't taking our baby with us. There are moments when I am afraid I will be perceived as crazy or weak or out of control because I can't keep from crying, and that frustrates me.

Most of the time, I can keep my tears in check.  These days, I don't typically walk around blubbering in public (airport incident notwithstanding).  I still want and need to be somewhat private in my grief.  But I've also gotten more comfortable with my tears, and with letting people see them.  Crying doesn't set me back, it doesn't tear me apart, it doesn't make me depressed.  Tears just spill over sometimes, because that's how freaking hard this is.  And if someone else witnesses that?  Fine.  After all, most of the time, I do a pretty damn good job of making it through the day.

What I want other people to understand, when they mention Eliza and my eyes fill with tears, is that crying does not mean, "I can't believe you mentioned her name and I hate you for making me sad."

Crying means, "I love her and miss her so much, and I'm really touched that you are thoughtful enough to say her name and ask how I'm doing."

So please, go ahead and make me cry.  The real kindness isn't avoiding the subject.  It's abiding with me and my tears.


  1. At a public lecture last night, marking the installation of a new endowed chair in English, the woman who donated the money to endow the chair in her husband's name sobbed before a room of 300 people when she explained that he had died over twenty years ago from cancer. It was very, very moving. I think everyone there understood her grief. If I had to guess, I'd say that the difference between now and twenty years ago is that, now, she mostly knows where and when she will feel that loss and is less surprised by it when those feelings come. What we can't endow with millions of dollars for the dead whom we miss, I think we really ought to endow with occasional tears.

  2. This is beautiful Brooke - full of insight and understanding. Thanks for writing here.

  3. absolutley love every single word

  4. Crying is not a negative reaction. It releases sadness; it does not create it....Being truly kind to people who are grieving isn't about not making them cry. It's about letting them cry.
    I love everything you wrote. It is all so true and really you nailed how I feel.

  5. I love this post and an probably gonna post it on my blog as you have captured so much of what I am feeling to a tee. Thanks for writing and sharing your feelings with us.

  6. another amazing post, and so so true. i think we all should get that printed on business cards to pass out. i've had to explain to several people that mentioning Julius doesn't "make" me sad. and i think you hit the nail on the head with everything you wrote. sending you lots of love...

  7. Oooh i need to write that on my imaginary index cards that i "pull out" when ppl ask me how many kids i have.

  8. So beautifully written, and absolutely true. I want to make copies and hand it out to...well, everyone.

  9. As usual, I totally agree. You articulate what so many of us want to shout out when we're sobbing after a baby mention.

    We love those little babies. We wouldn't be emotional and blubbering and crazy-ass-lunatics if it weren't for having deep-rooted love.

    I was pouring with tears next to another woman 2 days ago (she had a stillbirth daughter 32 years ago) as she talked of her daughter, her belief that although they wouldn't let her be seen that she'll meet in heaven, and how they reacted after their firstborn also died. We were both in tears. She said that after 32 years, the wound still feels fresh. She'll always miss her and always wonder the "what ifs" despite telling me that it's a dangerous place to visit in your mind.

  10. Beautifully said, Brooke. I hope these words reach beyond the babylost community, because I think that friends and family of people grieving a loss need to hear this.

  11. I couldn't agree more with each and every word. I have tried so many times to convey this message to my friends and family and I feel that it does no good. Oh how I wish others wouldn't be afraid to talk about my son or ask me how I'm doing. Thanks for writing this as hearing this come from someone else makes me feel that I'm not alone in my thoughts.

  12. I tried to stop the crying because I had felt that I cried enough. That was a very very bad thing, because it turned into rage. Rage is so not pretty. I'll take crying over rage any day. Love to you and Eliza as you approach her first birthday~

  13. As always, so very well said. You have a big heart.

  14. Okay, so I guess it's okay to share this with you - tonight I was reading the book my daughter checked out from the library at her school, and the main character's name was Eliza. It made me think of you and your girl. I wish she was here with you. She will never be forgotten.

  15. ditto.

    thank you for writing this.

  16. I think I would like to take the last three parts of this post and put those o a business card.. so perfectly said my friend... thinking of you and Eliza tonight- xo

  17. I would appreciate any acknowledgement of my baby. It might make me cry, but that doesn't mean that it was inappropriate. It means that you are acknowledging the greatest tragedy of my life and I am responding to it the only way I can--with a grief that is as deep as my love for her. I am grateful that you gave me the chance to do so.

    --Should definitely be on business cards. :)
    Another beautiful post, Brooke. I love you and your writing oh so very much. xox

  18. This is so beautiful......such a perfect post. You've put into words what I feel like I've tried to explain many times- what I think in my head so often.

    Thank you for sharing this....xoxo

  19. I came over from Samantha K's touched on a lot of true things about how I react when people bring up my daughter too! I'm off to go read some more of your posts!

  20. I stumbled upon your blog a few days ago and wanted to say that I enjoy your writing. My daughter was stillborn in July. I agree that it is so much better to have our babies acknowledged. As I get farther from Genevieve's death, I find myself looking for ways to bring her up because I still need -- physically need -- to talk about her.

  21. Wow. Yes, exactly, yes! I wish I could make everyone I know read this.

  22. "So please, go ahead and make me cry. The real kindness isn't avoiding the subject. It's abiding with me and my tears."

    Yes, exactly. Thanks for this post.

    - Kari

  23. There's a song I love that reminds me of this feeling: