I recently told my counselor I hadn’t felt inspired or passionate in a while. I was concerned about my apathy and unsure how to feel motivated on new writing projects. Then I recalled some feedback my husband had received multiple times recently—that when he mentioned our daughter’s death as it related to a career change, it sounded “depressing” and “heavy.” Could he maybe leave out the part about our daughter when describing his new path?
Heavy? Depressing? This is our real life! Must be nice to avoid things that are heavy and depressing. We make people squirm just by telling the truth.
I felt my blood pressure rising. I’m sick of having to defend the accuracy of the heaviness—or the depth of the depression—that accompanies the death of a child. I’m tired of reiterating that yes, this loss is that bad. No, there’s no distracting from it.
That moment was when I realized I was, in fact, passionate. My daughter, her importance, my grief, the unending nature of this loss… my ears perked up. I sat up straighter. I took interest. I could barely get my words out fast enough.
But how do I attempt to live honestly within my grief in a world that fervently sends me messages to get over it? Nearly daily I feel the pressure to say “I’m so much better now!” or to answer “How are you?” with something okay-ish. There’s pressure to focus on the future, to appreciate good things, to go gaga over others’ children, to not mention my own.
Cora died right as I expected to meet her face-to-face, after a beautiful 41-week pregnancy. I was already at the hospital in labor when I was told she was gone. My husband and I drove off two days later in the same rush hour traffic I’d driven days before on my commute, a prophetic glimpse into this disorienting life where we continue living among others who carry on as normal.
I knew we were stepping into an isolating new world where none of our current network of friends or family could relate to us. Many were becoming new parents themselves and had the expected outcomes, the sweet beginnings instead of our heartbreaking ending. I realized those relationships would be upsetting and awkward to navigate, and they are. What I did not realize was that I was also stepping into a society that treats bereaved mothers like castaways.
It’s still hard?
You have to remember your blessings!
Just remember, everything happens for a reason.
God had a plan.
You need a distraction.
Can you go talk to someone about it?
You should take medications.
You don’t smile enough.
The reactions to my grief became a predictable song-and-dance; I could nearly place bets on what was about to unfold.
Fifty percent chance this person will avoid me.
Seventy-five percent chance this one will speak to me but will not mention my child or my grief in any way, even if I do.
Ninety percent chance this person will ask how I’m doing but will mince my words into something happy at the earliest opportunity.
They’re sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit, but the “get over it” moments add up until I have a full, comprehensive collection. The changes of subject, fixations on the positive, pushes toward the future—they join forces to send me a clear message: my grief cannot be handled.
Either move on or keep quiet. You’ve become a burden. Keep the messy stuff to yourself.
Last fall, I wrote an essay for The Washington Post about the loneliness of my motherhood. My inner journalist was thrilled and proud to get a byline in my dream publication. The reaction was enormous—an outpouring from bereaved parents, a flooded inbox, thousands of visitors to my website.
But I let one comment—one!—cause me to question everything.
You sound depressed. You need to stop looking for other sad stories. You need God and therapy.
I had plenty of rebuttals to each piece of this person’s assumption-laden comment. I knew not to take it seriously. There’s nothing anyone can say or do that will rattle me the way losing Cora did, or that will compete in any way with my feelings for her. But I still sat in a hotel room in Florida and cried.
Should I ever speak out again? Trying to describe this new life is useless. The people who know it firsthand don’t need me to explain it. It is impossible to explain to those who can’t relate anyway. Do I feel even worse for attempting to be publicly honest, already a challenge in my private circles?
My husband pointed out that the ill-informed comment reinforced, ironically, one of the points of my essay: society as a whole wants to “fix” bereaved mothers, not see and hear them.
The bereaved mother’s yearning is not all that different from anyone else’s, only more difficult to achieve: we just want to feel deeply understood. Bereaved parenthood is a lonely place to be, especially when I’m told I am wrong for feeling what is only reasonable to feel.
Slowly, I’ve begun living within my loss. I’ve integrated my pain into the very fibers of my being. I know no other way to proceed, and I’m comfortable with my relationship with grief. As Megan Devine writes in It’s OK That You’re Not OK: “With enough room to breathe, to expand, to be itself, pain softens. No longer confined and cramped, it can stop thrashing at the bars of its cage, can stop defending itself against its right to exist.”
I will not act like she did not exist.
I will not stop saying her name.
I will not pretend I am ever unaware of her absence.
I will not sugarcoat the pain so others will feel more comfortable.
I will not agree this loss is one you ever get over.
And I will not apologize.
Perhaps the bereaved mother reaches a place of unwanted but hard-won power. I’ve generally been a rule follower, a peace keeper. I’ve never had anything I felt the desire to fight for the way I would for Cora. There’s a primal instinct to protect Cora’s legacy, just as I would protect her life. I feel like a rabid animal with my claws out when my motherhood, or Cora’s existence, comes into question.
Say something dismissive, and the fuel pours onto my heart’s fire.
Tell me I need to move on? I will speak out.
How have you responded to the social demands of the people and communities around you?