I'm still thinking about this.  I have a hard time with the phrase, "I can't even imagine" or "I won't even pretend to understand what you are going through".  Let me rephrase - I don't always have a hard time with it.  But, I don't like when that sentiment is followed with prescriptive advice or a brushing away of what I am going through.  Like a "I won't pretend to know what you are going through but one thing I've learned in this life is to keep putting one foot in front of the other."  If they haven't lost a child, they really have no idea what they are talking about.  I guess it would make me madder if they said, "I know exactly what you (you name it: pet, grandpa, friend, ??? - but not a child) died too". (Another "can't win situation" brought to you by Abby Leviss and grievers across the world). 

I think what people mean is (because I've said it and this is what I mean):
I can't even imagine anything more horrible than what you are going through.  Or, perhaps - what you are going through is too painful to imagine.

Because, here is the thing - you CAN imagine.  When people tell me that they can't imagine - it effectively shuts them off from trying to imagine what I feel like.  What I'd really like to say sometimes is "Sure you can.  Imagine your three children.  Now imagine one of them dead.  Imagine watching them die in the hospital in front of your face.  Imagine planning their funeral.  Imagine throwing dirt on their coffin.  Then imagine visiting them at the cemetery and spending the rest of your life talking to the sky or the ground when you want to feel close to them.  And, if you can't pick a child to imagine dead, I'll pick one for you - because that is how random it is anyway."  

I don't think that would go over very well.  Can you imagine the uncomfortable situation I would be putting that person in for a whole 30 seconds?  They'd have to imagine their child dead!  How horrific!  Of course, I live with that horror and in that uncomfortable place all day long every day.  So, is it really so horrible for me to ask you to imagine?

Basically, the only way to truly have empathy for another person's situation is to try and imagine it.  There are no short cuts - it's the only way.  The beauty is - you don't actually have to live it.  You are just imagining it.

If we could imagine what it was like to live in rural Africa and have no access to water - If we could imagine what it was like to live a life addicted to drugs - If we could imagine what it was like to be our own "enemies" - If we could imagine being homeless or widowed or orphaned - If we could imagine what it was like to lose our child - We'd be living in a completely different world.  A world with far less judgments, with far more appreciation, with far greater empathy.

No - you will NEVER understand what I am going through and I can appreciate when you acknowledge that .  But maybe you can follow the statement by saying something like, "but I want to understand and so I am listening".  I know you will never understand and for that, I am glad.  Nobody should ever have to lose a child.  I wish I was the one imagining and not the one living it.  But I guess I am just saying that you CAN imagine it.  You CAN. You just choose not to and I can't say I blame you much - who would want to?


Tamar said...

You've taught me the subtle difference between saying "I can only imagine" vs. "I can't imagine" I've imagined how you must feel many times over the last few years - thought I'm not able to put myself in your shoes because I don't have kids yet, I've imagined the loss of my niece who is the same age that Maxie would be. More than that, though, I've imagined what it's like to be you, go through your days with this unfair, horrible, beyond tragic loss. This blog has helped me do that. I'm forever sorry and sending love to all of you. xo

Anonymous said...

Your writing is always so powerful. What you wrote are exactly how I feel too. I just don't have the talent to put them into the words so well.

Becca said...

I hear what you are saying and I like how you suggest following the statement with "but I want to understand..."

My hesitation in saying "I can imagine how you feel" was that it feels insulting/belittling. To use the Africa example, sure, I could pretend-fake imagine it. But I'd still have NO IDEA what it's like to live in that situation because it's so far outside my realm of experience. It feels a bit icky to claim that I could imagine such a life as I sit here in my comfortable first world existence.

In the same way, it feels wrong to claim that I can imagine losing one of my children. When I say "I can't imagine" I'm trying to acknowledge that I don't really know what it's like or how the person feels.

I really appreciate you sharing your perspective because I never would have thought of "I can't imagine" as causing pain, but now I can see how it would.

I am sorry, Abby.

Abby Leviss said...

I hear you Becca. I honestly think the point is empathy. And what is the intent. Sometimes people tell me "I really can't imagine what you're going through" but I know by what follows that they are supportive and want to hear me. Other times people say "I really can't imagine what you are going through. It's so sad." And then they move on. I also can't really claim an intimate understanding of something dramatic that someone else has been through. But I can listen and try to put myself in their shoes for a moment. Even if I can't imagine the situation, I can imagine how hard it is for them to be carrying a heavy heavy weight. I'm never as bothered by words as I am by intent and something about grief gives you x ray vision. It's not hard to read between the lines.

GrahamForeverInMyHeart said...

Your post is so well written. I agree, if more people would try to put themselves in other people's shoes, the world would be a much kinder place. There is nothing to be gained by all the judging and the superiority that so many people practice. In reality, there is often just a fine line (and a random event) that separates a normal life from a disaster.

Anonymous said...

Most people mean well when they say those words, and they think they're saying the right thing. They think it's what they're supposed to say. After all, everyone knows we should never say, "I know how you feel." But I'm with you - I hate that phrase, too. "I can't imagine..." Right away, there's that line in the sand between you and me. Your pain is so awful and horrible, and I want to separate and distance myself from it, so I'm going to say that I can't even imagine it. But whatever. I can. We all can. It's just so awful that we don't want to.

Abby Leviss said...


Taryn said...

You have done a good job here of helping us begin to imagine your loss. It is so profound. So horrific. So life-altering. I can only imagine, yet I know that will never be enough to truly understand the agony your heart has to endure every moment of each day.

I am so very sorry Abby!