Oh, the things people say

I have to confess, DH and I were surrounded by people who cared. Our friends, family and church community treated Gabriel's loss as the painful and profound loss that it was. They reached out to us with flowers and visits and food, cards, messages left on our phone. They helped with the funeral, held us up. The support was both visible and invisible. The Anglican tradition (which I worship in) refers to something as the Communion of Saints. Understood at different times, and in different ways, the Communion of Saints refers to the body of believers, here and in heaven. So often I felt their prayers, felt their care and concern reach out and envelop us.

I speak to people, and I realize this care and concern is not universal. The kind words people said, that came from deep within their hearts are not the same words that everyone experiences. And I realized how fortunate we were. In a way that was utterly undeserved, people held their hands out to us, and walked for a while in our pain. They told us from the bottom of their hearts how sorry they were. When they couldn't find words to say, they told us honestly" I don't know what to say", or "I"m sorry seems so small". Some who couldn't find words sent flowers or food. I remember a friend who sent "Love in the form of a chicken pot pie". A collection of friends phoned me daily, just to see how I was doing. One sent me a joke or a nice message or something by email every day. I can't for a moment say that I deserved this enormous care and compassion. I'd like to think I'm a nice person, I'd like to think I demonstrate my care for those around me, but the outpouring of love we saw was utterly undeserved, it was nothing more than shear grace to us. We continue to see it when people stop by and ask how I am doing. That I am embarrassed to answer "good days and bad" or to be honest about the days when I am sad is to my debit, not theirs.

And so, when I am asked about the people who say things that are, well, less than graceful, I am not quite sure what to say. Yes, people have said foolish, painful, silly things to us. They have negated our pain, told us to get on with life. I came back to work 7 days after Gabriel's birth (only to turn my out of office e-mail notice on) and a co-worker ran away from me. People hurried back to their desks. I had organized Christmas presents for a lower income family before I became sick. My manager caught me on the elevator and guilted me in to delivering them. My supervisor brought the gifts to the funeral, told me in the middle of the receiving line, with 75 people behind her, that they were in her car. Would I come and get them? I'm still not sure what she was thinking. When I returned back to work, another co-worker asked if I had a nice break. Silly, stupid things, but they stung all the same.

And that's just it. I think there are five kinds of people in the world, when it comes to tragedy. There are those who are a part of the communion of saints - they show love, care and concern. They entered into the tragedy that was Gabriel's life and death with us. They walked along side and our tears mingled. They didn't try to mitigate the tragedy, they didn't try to minimize it, they acknowledged that this was a horrible thing, and that there was nothing for it, but to be horrified. They held out hope on the goodness of God, but acknowledged the depth of evil and injustice and unfairness that had been inflicted upon us.

And then there are the communion of the pious - the "I should say something to show how strong of a Christian I am. I will issue some absurd platitude like "Gabriel is in Heaven now. You shouldn't cry". (I know my son is in heaven, and I'm glad for heaven, but I want him here, in my arms! Where he belongs.) or "It's for the best" (I'm not sure what the hell kind of world you live in, that the best thing that could happen to a tiny baby is to die and not be with his parents who desperately love and miss him. ) I suspect these people are so unable to handle a world that contains so much tragedy, and so they must reduce my pain and grief into manageable explanations and cute bumper stickers. I am saddened that their life is so emotionally small and shallow.

And then there is the communion of the unthinking - the "just open your mouth and say whatever pops out" crowd. I'm not talking about the person who accidentally says death in a conversation with me, or the person who asks how I'm doing (Hint: I buried my son today. There's no way I'm going to answer with 'just great'. Let's move on). Sometimes we just say things without thinking. Our tongue gets going faster than our brain. I'll never forget telling palliative care patients to have a good day and I'd see them next week. I had friends do and say things that weren't quite what they intended. We are human. We aren't perfect.

No, I"m talking about something quite different. Perhaps these people utterly lack the gift of empathy. They show up at funerals with gifts for the Christmas family, because they know you'll be there. Work for the bereaved parent to do. They complain about their teenage children and wonder why I have a pained look on my face (Hint: telling me how rotten your children are will not make me want my son with me any less). Their comments and actions are not intended to wound, they really aren't intended for much. They are there to fill a space filled with pain and fear. I have realized how others look at my circumstances, and in being thankful and afraid, thankful that they have never experienced this pain, and afraid it might be catching, they just want to get to the matter at hand, and stay far, far way from the pain.

There is the communion of the hidden - You only see them one by one, and you only see their back as they run away from you. They don't say something stupid, or thoughtless, they don't say anything at all. They don't talk to you. If I mention Gabriel's death, or my pregnancy, or my labour, they get silent. They look anywhere but at me. I am a pariah. Baby death is possibly catching.

Lastly, there is the communion of the self-absorbed. Not always completely selfish. These are the people who assure me that their pain/ their mother's pain/their sister's pain is much greater. I have no reason to complain. Sometimes they are just driven by a need to compete, perhaps their own private tragedies were never validated by those around them. I don't know. There's another class, those who are so consumed by their own tragedies, they assume that my pain must be like theirs, that they understand how I feel. A person with early miscarriages told me she understood my pain. No, she can't. And it's not that early miscarriages aren't pain. There is no Richter scale of pain, rather there is different sorts of pain, experienced differently by different people. It is cruelty to tell a grieving person what shape and form and limit her pain must take.

And so, when people ask me what they should say in these kinds of circumstances, I say honestly. "I"m so sorry" is always appropriate. If you can't say anything, or you aren't sure, please default to this. No one will fault you. We have lost so much about "the rules" in modern etiquette that we don't know what to do or say in horrible situations. Trust me, "I'm so sorry" is the little black dress of modern etiquette. Goes everywhere, you can say it with anything.

But what matters is not the words. What matters, in spite of the words you say, is an attempt to walk into the tragedy that is the death of a baby, and to be with me in it. What matters is your willingness to walk along side me, if only for a moment or two. That isn't about pretty words, or pious platitudes, or unthinking, it's about allowing the depth of the situation to direct your words. It's about being my friend. Showing your feelings. Being Authentic.

Want an example? A classmate said "Oh F#^*. That really sucks. And it's not fair. I'm sorry. You wanted your baby so much". Not words ever on the front of a hallmark card, but words from deep within his heart. And they resonated with my heart, and I felt the communion of saints around me.