Grief: The Scarlet Letter “G”
Notes on comforting a grieving mother
When my daughter died of SIDS in 2003, I felt like I had a scarlet letter “G” plastered on my forehead. G for GRIEF. But, as anyone who is grieving a loss can tell you, there is a half-life for people’s wanting to see that “G.”
The only people who seemed to accept this “G” were others who were also grieving. I can remember having lunch with a fellow graduate student right after my daughter’s death — he had lost his wife to cancer. I completely understood when he said that he couldn’t get rid of her clothes, even though it had been years. He seemed relieved to be able to confess this struggle to let go, something I am sure he hadn’t told many — if any — people before.
The grieving are in a secret club in which they don’t know who all the members are.
Grieving mothers are even a more closeted group.
Motherhood is considered such a positive experience that any aspect that is less than cheery is discouraged in our culture. Just think about the widespread reaction to postpartum depression. The idea that any woman could feel less than exuberant joy after giving birth is still taboo for many people.
I think grief, pain and other “negative” emotions are “verboten” in our culture because they remind people that they can, might, and will have less than perfect experiences in life. In terms of motherhood, this reminder is particularly risky because our illusion of mothering is of perfection.
Mothers who grieve infant death or pregnancy loss are further stigmatized. We remind people of the risk entailed in every pregnancy. We remind people that life isn’t perfect. What expecting or current parent wants to be reminded of this risk? Why would we want our illusions shattered?
Why face our fears head on when we can bury our heads in the sand?
Think about all the celebrity and gossip magazine in any grocery store check-out line. Pregnancy sells — rather than featuring the newest fashions, the focus is on expectant mothers. In fact, what is truly fashionable is the “belly bump.”
This national obsession with pregnancy only made my giant “G” more glaringly red. Pregnancy is such a visible marker — you can’t get away with hiding it for long — and your body becomes alarmingly public. Anyone with a growing “belly bump” knows the lack of boundaries that comes with it, strangers thoughtlessly taking it upon themselves to touch this bump.
The questions are endless — when are you due, is it a girl or a boy, are you taking your prenatal vitamins?Or, everyone has advice, or a funny story, that they feel compelled to share when they see you are the walking epitome of motherhood. The only situation rivaling the belly bump in terms of attention is walking around with a puppy.
So, when you have a loss associated with pregnancy, whether it be stillbirth, infant death, miscarriage or even infertility, no one wants to hear about it.
When we grieve, the best thing for us to do is to talk.
We need to share our feelings, our grief, probably more than any new mom needs to talk about carseats and booties. In fact, I know from my own experience most new moms really want to talk about the struggles and difficulties they have because motherhood it isn’t the pure joy that is mythically portrayed in our culture.
One of the questions I hear most often from people is how to deal with someone — particularly a mother — who is grieving?
Should I remind them of their grief?
My answer is that the grieving will remember their grief no matter if you say anything or not. What is more a concern for the bereaved is whether anyone else remembers.
And the fact is, when people ask how to deal with someone who is grieving, they are often motivated by trying to avoid the socially awkward nature of grief. Many other people feel wary of mentioning a loss because it reminds them that loss is always a risk.
Perhaps it is the inherent human nature of compassion and empathy. We can’t help but put ourselves in someone else’s position, which can lead us to feel the pain from the loss of loved ones — feelings we might rather repress or avoid.
Other times, people feel uncomfortable mentioning a loss because they really can’t imagine what the loss feels like. It is the failure of empathy that drives this socially awkward interaction. I see this failure in a lot of men struggling to figure out how to deal with a grieving mother, even if they themselves are grieving dads. Many men cannot conceive of the joys of motherhood so they feel at a loss to understand the interruptions or destruction of that joy.
Alienation and empathy drives the socially awkward nature of grief.
Unfortunately, this drive leads many to shut down, tune out and avoid, all ways to cope with uncomfortable situations.
And the grieving feel even more alone.
However, just acknowledging their grief, letting them know they are not alone, can be of comfort.
The grieving mother can know she doesn’t stand alone.
We all know someone is grieving. We all will be bereaved. It is the nature of human existence, of loving and living. Don’t you hope that when you experience loss, someone remembers? That someone is able to brave the socially awkward abyss of grief and provide you with some comfort?
My “G” has faded a bit over the years, a pink faded scar on my forehead rather than a deep gash of red. I believe being aware that I wasn’t alone, that my grief didn’t make me the the walking dead, has been essential to my healing.
When we acknowledge loss, when we don’t turn away from tragedy, when we stand beside the bereaved, we allow the bereaved to move towards healing. We help carry the burden of that heavy “G.”
If you liked this essay, you might like this one.