Today a co-worker of mine shared with me some tragic news. She had just attended a funeral for a baby of about 2 years old. The baby had been visiting her father's house when she wandered out and fell into the pool and drowned.
My heart broke for this baby and her family. I don't know them, but when you have suffered the loss of a child, you become part of a family of sorts. I can tell you when I walk into work who among us has lost children, and we all speak a bit more kindly to one another. We give knowing smiles and nods. We know what others do not, cannot, should not. And for that, we are gentler souls. I have sent notes to people whom I have never and will never meet, just to try and let them know that it is possible to survive such an unbelievable tragedy. That they are not alone.
The co-worker who shared the news of the child's death took an unexpected turn in conversation when she said, "It took me a long time at the funeral to figure out who the child's mother was. She was just wearing a red top and white jeans and she never even cried once." After this, the conversation deteriorated and became a criticism of this mother and of how they would act if their child had died and why her behavior was entirely inappropriate for a grieving mother. I managed to squeak out: "Don't you think maybe she was just in shock?" before retreating into my own shell of grief.
Perhaps the pre-loss me would have joined in this conversation. Perhaps I would have been willing to stand in judgement of a mother who had lost her baby girl. Maybe I thought, before I knew anything, that I knew what grief was supposed to look like. I can't really say, because I don't even know that version of me anymore. My whole life, my whole personality, my whole outlook and makeup and every reaction to everything that happens to and around me is colored by the loss of my child.
I knew loss before my son died. My mother died when I was 19. I was as grief-stricken as any child would be. But the loss of a child is a totally different experience. The loss of a child bends time and space in ways that will never make sense. I have healed, little by little, but I will never be "back to normal".
For this reason, I beg anyone who even thinks about judging any parent who has lost a child to remember just one thing: you have no idea what they are going through. It's a good thing. It's a good thing not to know. Still, the shoes you are standing in are your own and you cannot begin to understand how your world can be spinning normally on its axis one moment and then, the next, go rolling through the universe without any sort of control. YOU HAVE NO IDEA.
So, when you see a mother show up to her child's funeral in her everyday clothes, be gentle. When you see a father who lost sight of his child for one moment and you want to judge him for his carelessness, be gentle. When the parents don't even have the strength to attend their child's funeral at all, be gentle. Let your first assumption be the fact that what they do, they do from a place of love. Let your next assumption be that these parents are totally losing their minds with grief and that they deserve a get out of social skills free card for at least the next six months.
When you see a parent who is attending her child's memorial and she is wearing a ball gown and a tiara and she is laughing hysterically, BE GENTLE. If the father is naked and screaming and totally irrational, BE GENTLE. If they receive your words meant in kindness with biting anger or if they sob into your shoulder until you think you might drown in tears or if they seem to ignore your very existence, be gentle. Hold them in their grief, be with them where they are at and, I beg of you, remember that you do not know.