Monday, January 23, 2012

Not Better, Not Worse

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.


  1. Brooke, you could not have said it better. I have had many people tell me "well, at least... [fill in the blank]" (i.e. your child wasn't older, you didn't watch your child suffer, etc...), and I used to think I should listen to that. But then I realized that trying to compare my situation did not make me feel any better about the horrible--you put it well--"soul-scorching" remnant of a life that had happened to me because we lost Georgiana.

    At that point I realized there is no comparison. You're right, hearbreak is heartbreak. I had to eventually tell people, even those closest to me, to stop comparing the situation to try and make me feel better.

    I hear a lot of those things. Just the other day a family member said to me, "it will be so great to have your first be a boy!"

    It stung, and from someone who loves me and remember my daughter. I knew it really wasn't what she meant, but to me was just a slap in the face that my first is no longer here, and that to the world, it will look like my first is a boy.

    And yes, nearly a year of intense grieving has taught me that the only better is to have never lost our babies in the first place.

  2. aaaaarrrrrrgggggghhhhh! i found myself holding my breath waiting to read what it was this person said. and then i felt myself getting pissed off. you are right there is NO right time to lose a child. and you are also right about why it is that this person said what they said. they have no clue at all about the depth of their ignorance. and i guess it's good for them that they don't have to feel this pain, and they can go around being blissfully ignorant about child loss. but unfortunately for those of us who have had our innocence ripped away from us, comments like that just hurt and hurt and hurt.

    i completely understand why D didn't engage this a-hole (sry i'm mad) either. especially if there is a chance that this person may want to continue to voice their opinion on a very tender subject like that that they no nothing about. the heart can only take so many hurtful comments. but i wish i had been there, so i could have jumped up and told this fool exact how wrong his is and exactly how hurtful his wrong comment was.

    i'm so so sorry that you had to be there for that. i wish you had NEVER lost Eliza. because, you are right, that is the only way it would have been better. ((hugs))

  3. I remember in the early days trying to justify to myself that it was easier this way, never having known Amelia outside of my tummy. Now all I wish for is one blink, one breath, one cry, a small glimpse at who she would have been. "The truth is, there's a dark, twisty part of me that envies parents who have memories of live babies" - I get this, me too.

    These types of comments so hurt, yet how can they ever imagine how we feel - hollow, a part of us missing forever. Our children were real and we carried them with us, they were a part of us and our future plans and life just as any child is. A loss of a child at any stage is the kind of hurting that should never be felt.

  4. Very well said. It is so painful the way that words from other people can haunt us for days or weeks. My husband and I lost our first baby, Jeremy, at almost 31 weeks. We are now pregnant with our second and it is truly astounding the things that people say because they think they are insightful or helpful in some way. I wish people could learn just to acknowledge loss and grief rather than trying to come up with something "helpful" to say. I think you're right about how many people don't want to try to look at life from our perspective; it's too scary and too painful. But, the helpful thing is that there are some people out there who are willing to go there and be with you in grief. Thanks for writing this. Its so comforting to know that at least I am not alone in feeling these things.

  5. Yes! This is exactly what I keep wanting to tell people! My family has been really awesome about compartmentalizing my daughter's death, but friends and acquaintances have, and it drives me mad. I totally agree that it doesn't matter when the child died - what matters is that it happened. It's a tragedy any way you look at it. I'm so sorry you lost Eliza and that you're also having to deal with such commentary. Blessings to you!

  6. At our support group, I have heard several moms say that they are really grateful that they had a few precious days or months with their child, that having a little time is a gift, a small glimpse of their child before they were gone.

    I see that this is so true now, because the missing is the same, the longing the same, for all of us. But I agree that I never would have known that I could love her this much even tho I only held her dead.

  7. You need to educate the world. This was perfect.

    When Miles' brother was killed I kept thinking what his mother most be going through. And I found myself jealous of her for the nearly 25 years of memories she had with/for/of her son. I feel bad for that - becuase in addition to the jealousy I have tremendous sadness for the memories she won't have, but still - I wish(ed) that I could have had that with my son. But I've realized that it's like what you said - heartbreak is heartbreak. When it comes to child loss, there is no better. Not even close.

  8. This WAS perfect. Thank you, Brooke (again!).

    One of our friends from our support group got a bizarre variation on that comment -- someone once told her that "maybe her daughter was taken now to spare her from a horrible tragedy in the future." (???!!? )

    People who make comments like that really do not have a friggin' clue.

  9. I remember having a near-identical conversation with well-meaning friends a couple months after Jack passed away. The dude was telling me friends of his lost their little girl to cancer at nearly two years of age.. and he commented about how we were lucky we didn't have two years to miss.. How much harder it would be to lose someone you know and love.

    Problem? The problem is I DID know him, and I DO love him. Those two years? I would give anything to have had two years of memories with him... And even though the result (death of their child) was the same, I can't imagine the loss of a child, at any age, to be an acceptable thing- a measurable "better or worse".

    I'm eternally grateful for having Jack alive with me for just a few days. They were happy days, and I am lucky to have them.

  10. oh my god. i admit i've jumped to the comments without reading the rest of your post (yet) but i just want to say my response when this happens:
    "well actually, I don't see it that way. I'd have treasured any memories and photographs I could have had with my daughter. If you knew your friend/child/loved one would die for some reason when they are 25, would you be thankful that they were killed instead in a car crash when they were 6?"
    I find ANY notion that we should be GRATEFUL for any aspect of our child's death so OFFENSIVE that I just can't help myself from pointing this out. To imply that we should be thankful in any way that we lost our babies is so awful.
    OK sorry I just feel real strongly about this.And no, keeping silent is not a betrayal. You can always speak out if you feel comfortable.
    People are just so determined to find some sort of upside to babies dying. I cannot stand this.

  11. "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."

    Yep, me too. And I have living kids now, so I know exactly what I'm missing out on. But then, I don't. Because they are not her and no one ever will be.

    Oh it hurts.

    Love to you. xo

  12. This is pretty much why I do not engage with people about my son anymore. I've learned to let things go as opposed to in the beginning when I was a raw, open wound and every comment hurt but still, I'd just rather not hear it anymore.

  13. It's interesting because I have absolutely used that phrase when in my darker moments and I don't feel like I should be grieving. Trying to convince myself I don't have it as bad as someone else so I shouldn't be still sad.
    It's wrong. It's wrong of him to say it, and it doesn't help when I think it.
    I'm still heartbroken.

  14. My MIL and I were sitting around talking about 2 months after the stillbirth of our son at 21 SIL was pregnant and due soon and we were discussing her choice of name for her DD...MIL said, "I liked the name you picked out" (in reference to our son Preston, for whom we had a graveside memorial service, headstone, burial, and all), as if he was just some 'idea' of a child that we had but was now gone....I did not say anything and probably never will, but it really stung for our son (and her grandson) to have been so trivialized, like he didn't even exist! It aggravates me to no end! It is by FAR the most insensitive comment of which I have been the recipient!

  15. I think the problem is that people don't realize how precious every single second we had with our babies is to us. They don't realize that whether you knew your child for 20 days or 20 years the hurt of losing them is still very real. No matter what age a child is when they pass away their parents will always mourn them.

    I don't think you betrayed Eliza in any way. You were simply protecting your already battered heart from more hurt. And you're right the only thing that would make this better is if she were alive.

  16. I read this earlier while at school and unable to comment... but what I remember other than the obvious (yes, our babies mean the world to us and it's NEVER okay they died ANY TIME) is that you mentioned your jealousy.

    The little things like seeing Andrew's eyes or feeling the grasp of his finger... or putting him in an adorable outfit or watching him crawl. Those are all things I will forever wonder and feel cheated on. But, with that said, I would feel cheated no matter when he died if I were still alive as I am.

    It's an unfair reality for all of us.

  17. My older brother said the same exact thing to me. How much harder it would be if Camille died later. I told him straight up he was wrong. I think people try to make it easier on themselves by saying it must be easier for us. I miss never seeing NY daughters eyes open and alive. I miss feeling her hand grasp my finger. Smiling as I nurse her. All of it. I had a child already. I knew what I was missing. I tried to tell myself that it was easier that it was Camille and not Kai. But it's all just part of us bargainig with our grief. I am so sorry that you had to hear this. I wish David would have said something, if only to soothe your heart. It Would always be hard to lose a child but I am jealous of people that spent even 20 minutes with their live baby. Heartbreaking!