Coping in Secret

All of the time people are telling me about someone else they know who has lost a child and is coping really well with the loss.  Sometimes the context of these conversations feels a little accusatory, like, "why aren't YOU coping as well as our friend so and so?" - sometimes they are just told as a way to make a connection, like, "My friend so and so also lost her child and she has also figured out a way to move on and be happy" - sometimes the awful grief competition is introduced with the statement, like, "So and so lost her husband, then her mother, then she had multiple surgeries, and then she lost her son - and she is soldiering on - doing great!  She is such an inspiration to us - it's amazing she hasn't fallen apart" (unspoken subtext: "Like you did.  She has lost SO MUCH more than you but she is keeping it together").

I usually nod, ask a few questions and leave it at that.  Even without knowing "so and so", I feel pretty confident that he/she isn't coping as well as whoever I am talking to thinks he/she is.

I want to propose something - perhaps these people aren't coping as well as you think they are.  Perhaps their lives are incredibly complex and the only place that they can really grieve is with a grief group/therapist/significant other/alone.  I mean, it just may be something worth considering.  I know you are the one that knows them really well and of course, I don't know them at all - but I'd just like to put it out there.  Consider it food for thought.

A lot of grieving parents are not showing YOU the full picture - for a variety of reasons.  A lot of grieving parents sense that people don't want to hear about how awful losing their child really is, they aren't comfortable expressing emotion, they don't want to "burden" you with their loss, they are of a generation/gender that was taught to keep a stiff upper lip or sweep it under the rug, or they may feel like it's important to "fake it till you make it".  I am not saying that there aren't parents out there that are coping well - I am simply saying that you may not be privy to the complexity of the loss or the toll it's taken on your friend.

I tend to take these stories with a grain of salt.  My experience tells me that these people are not as well adjusted as you are giving them credit for....losing a child is's as simple as that.  If they are actually coping well today, the chances are that they have been to hell and back to get to this point.

The fact is that I don't let everyone in myself - fewer and fewer, in fact, as time goes on.  AND - the ones that I do let in - don't get let in for very long.  There actually isn't one person on the earth who gets let in on it all - not even Ted.  It is just way too heavy to actually share in its entirety.  There are plenty of people in my life - people who don't read my blog, or who I keep things light and superficial with - who probably think I am one of those people who are coping so well.  In many ways, I AM one of those people.  Truly.  My grief has finally made space for other things.  I am super functional, very happy most of the time, especially when I am surrounded by friends and family.  But, I would NEVER want someone using me as an example of "coping well" to another bereaved parent.  It is too simplistic and untrue.  It took me a LONG time to get here and I still have a LONG way to go.  My grief defines who I am in many ways - even if there are also many other pieces of my life that define me as well.

I remember one of the "happiness pushers" early on our loss kept telling me that she wanted me to talk to her friend who had lost a child.  "She lost her son when he choked on a grape right in front of her and she is fine now".  This person sounded like the last person on the earth I wanted to talk to after losing Max.  I couldn't wrap my brain around someone being fine with losing their child and I didn't ever want to be that person myself.  The happiness pusher thought that I was making too much of Max dying and that perhaps if I could just talk to someone who had lost a child and was well-adjusted, I'd be fine too.  I thought about this mother many times over the first two years of my loss - how had she done it?  Finally, and I am not sure why exactly, I did reach out to this mother, we made an appointment to talk on the phone and we spoke for several hours.  As you can imagine, the mother is not "fine".  She has incorporated the loss into her life.  She has much joy from her two surviving children.  She is busy and surrounded by people and her life does not any longer revolve around grief - which it did - for a long, long time.  Her early experiences reflect much of the same stuff I've been going through - anger, denial, spiritual searching, despondency, defensiveness.  But, there was still a gaping hole in her heart.  She still went through periods of hell.  She was frankly more than a bit insulted and pissed off that anyone had assumed she was "just fine" with the death of her son.  She was actually happy to be talking to me because it had been so long since she felt like she could have an honest conversation about the havoc her sons death had wreaked on her life.  Everyone expected more from her now - now that it has been such a long time since he died.  Her son. (Honestly, how does anyone expect anyone to get over that?  It's just unrealistic and unfair).

I guess all I am saying is that people are fighting battles that they are not necessarily sharing with you.  I made a decision to more open than most because that is who I am.  I have always been vocal (voted most talkative in more than one of my growing up scenarios), I have always been outspoken.  I have never been one to shy away from telling it like I see it.  This hasn't always made me popular or well-liked but it has always been who I am.  This is why you are hearing how I really feel about grief....and you are part of a small group of people in my life who do.  The only ones who ARE really hearing it are the ones who are seeking it out - by asking me how I am doing, checking in on my Facebook page, or by reading my blog.  Most everyone else likely thinks I am coping well and I don't go out of my way to tell them otherwise.  Contrary to what you might think - I also think I am coping well as can be expected. 

I saw this post on Facebook yesterday and it made me think - how can we ever know the demons someone else is fighting unless we ask?  Unless we are told?  Maybe we should stop making assumptions about how someone else feels or copes - because the fact is that we can almost never really know.  Anyway, just a thought.....


Seeing Each Day said...

Abby, I absolutely agree with every eloquent sentence you've written. It's interesting when you hear receive the comments like 'I rang --- and they were good, we joked about ----, and I made them laugh' ????? And as you say people tell you these sorts of things with such convinced authority, even though you know exactly what is going on and that that person is no where even near vicinity of 'good'. I've learnt in those cases that those people, not that they're bad or trying to be insensitive, but that they are only seeing it from they're view, they want the person to feel better so that they can feel better. I'm pleased you were able to ring that lady to confirm what you knew to be true. Renee

Leslie K. said...

This is a great and powerful post, Abbs. People so often fight their greatest battles in secret, and the public face can hide so much of what's truly going on.

Susan said...

Yeah, Amen to that.

The irony of society jumping up and down on us to fake being better, and then we get used as an example of how easy it is... just cos the sodding no-dead-kids folks find our grief a little scary...

Other than a magic wand to get our kids back, would just love a little cattle prod that delivers a short sharp (say 30 second shock) of "this is how it feels to have a dead child". I would dish it out liberally. ;-)