Subject to interpretation

photo by  meredith winn

photo by meredith winn

We learn at an early age to perceive that which we do not know.

We point to a smiling face, a frowning face, and ask toddlers to interpret the emotion in it. We read books and passages with elementary school children, and expect them to infer the message, the feelings and motives of the characters. We encourage older students to fill in the information gaps, to extrapolate meaning, to develop insights and theories, as they immerse themselves in all facets of study.

By the time we reach adulthood, we think we know enough and that we've had enough experiences (though many only imagined) to have developed a keen sense of understanding and perspective. We fancy ourselves good judges of character and situation. We think we know how we'd feel, how we'd handle, most any given situation.


In the months and years that followed B.W.'s death, I was bombarded by hundreds, maybe thousands, of unsolicited perspectives about his death, his worth, my grief and generally how I was perceived to be doing in the aftermath. I was shocked that so many people in my life felt they had a right to press their opinions upon me—in regard to my dead son! I resented that amidst learning to cope with my loss, I was forced to explain myself, and defend my grief, over and over again.

Although many of those strained relationships were salvaged, a few were severed, and remain so, almost 10 years later.

At Zachary's bedside in January 2014, when we knew he would die, I held the paralyzed hand of my suffering boy and actually used some of my limited mindshare to lament the fact that I was going to have to cope with the misunderstanding and opinions of family, friends and curious onlookers... all over again. I now regret that I lost even a single minute with my son due to the anxiety and stress of being judged and misconstrued in my future grief. But, I remembered. I remembered how abandoned and isolated I felt when people chose judgment over compassion, when they dismissed my grief or forced me on the defensive about how I was handling it all. And, I knew it was coming for me again.


About a month ago, just beyond two years into my new grief, I received a package in the mail from a family member I haven't seen or spoken to in months. She is not someone I confide in, and hasn't been in touch enough to realistically understand how we're doing or to support us in our grief after Zachary's death. She is now faced with grieving a loss of a different nature: her spouse. A tough loss, no doubt.

As I examined the package she sent, somehow I knew that the contents would call into questions my grief, in the context of her grief experience. My hands were trembling as I unwrapped the book (a study on one of the gospels of the Bible) and her seven-page handwritten letter addressed to me.

In the letter, she said she had participated in a bible study and felt compelled to reach out to me.  She talked a lot about her own loss. She reminded me that Mary lost her son Jesus, that I was not alone in my loss. I was urged to "break off the callouses on my temporarily hardened heart". I was told that eternity is a very long time and that I ought to focus on the fact that I'd spend it with my "babies". She didn't use either of their names even once in all seven pages.

I don't think she meant to hurt me, but her words felt like a verbal assault. I'm actually still dumbstruck by the whole thing. How she determined that my heart is hardened—and in what ways—I haven't a clue. Why she presumed it would be helpful to remind me of the biblical Mary and eternity, I'm truly baffled. 

I despise that such a tender wound of mine is (evidently) open to interpretation. And I'm insulted that the interpreter felt she had adequate information and experience to advise me.

The me that existed in the years before Zachary died would have expended energy to thank her for the book and then to gently educate her as to her ridiculous miscalculations. I would have explained I was hurt to be told, by someone who hasn't experienced the death of two of her children, how to cope with my grief and with the complex nature of my faltering faith. I would have tried to shed a sliver of light on my aching heart, in the hopes she'd see I'm doing the best I can. Or that, at a minimum, she'd back off.

But, I don't seem to have the stamina for this anymore. I'm fatigued just thinking about how to position a response that has a shot at being understood and well received. I haven't spoken with her since receiving the letter and package, and I don't plan to. Instead, I will let the effects of her presumptuous, ill-informed words to slowly simmer down, and then dissipate entirely, from my system.

How do you respond to people who have little basis for their judgments and/or no experience (with the death of a child(ren)) that merits advising you in your grief?