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  • The Vail Project

What to do when a grieving person snaps...

When you are grieving, people are quick to offer support. What they aren't quick to offer is understanding. It's because they can't possibly understand. This goes quadruple for child-loss grief. Unless you have lost your child, you can't possibly begin to understand the pain. And that is okay, no one expects you to. What is not okay, is to pass judgement on how we grieve or imply what is appropriate behavior for grief.

One of my new SUDC mom friends was messaging me today about this very topic. She said her in-laws were upset because she and her husband didn't buy a baby gift for family member. It was just too triggering for her to do so. Moreover, she just didn't want to shop for baby gifts. They just can't comprehend that. And she shouldn't have to explain herself, ask for forgiveness or deal with how anyone else feels about it. She couldn't do it. Period.

When you are buried deep in this kind of consuming darkness, social ettiequte and standard behavioral expectations are the last thing you care about. I can't explain to those who haven't felt this kind of loss, the magnitude of our inability to function in the 'regular' world. Steve and I have taken to staying home as much as possible. It's just easier for everyone that way. Easier for us, not to be triggered by something minuscule or angered by someone's random insensitivity. Easier for friends, family, and strangers to not be burdened by the sadness we can't hide and the pain in our eyes that they can't handle.

Those of us who are grieving may be irrational, irritable, unpredictable, hyper-sensitive, blunt, outspoken, on edge. We are completely unable to cope with many normal day to day activities. We are unable to hold back and lack the ability to filter our thoughts or feelings. We may misread social cues or misinterpret someone's intentions. Or, even worse, we can only view others through our grief glasses. What they say, what they do, their intentions, their motives. All viewed through the lens of our pain, frustration, sadness, and misery. This doesn't mean that our view point is incorrect or inaccurate, though it easily could be. We may say or do things that others just don't understand. Because they can't. Non-grievers, are unable to view the world through the lens of the loss that the grieving are forced to look through. We cannot simply remove these glasses and view the world and the people in it the way we did before. We may never be able to see the world as we once did. We may never see our friends, family, and acquaintances the same way either. Why you might ask? Because WE are not the same. And we never will be again. Don't wait for us to go back to the way we were before. Don't ever expect us to be able to put our loss aside and view a situation independently from our grief. That would be impossible. We are defined by this loss.

So what should you do, when faced with someone who sees everything so differently? Here are my suggestions:

1. Be sensitive to their new and changing view point. Even though you cannot understand it. Give a little more leeway than you would have in the past, create a wider birth when communicating, planning, engaging, or socializing. Example: If you send a grieving person an email, don't expect a timely response. Their sense of time is different than yours. Their priorities are different. Compared to the loss of their spouse or child, your phone call or email is just not on their radar. It may take weeks. Don't take this personally. It isn't about you.

2. Choose your words carefully. Use caution to avoid language that can be misinterpreted as judgmental or accusatory. Try to communicate via phone calls and FaceTime, not emails and texts if you have something to say that could be taken the wrong way. Not enough can be said for the intonation and context only possible in face to face or voice communication. If you have to send an email, be sure to read and re-read it before sending. Ask yourself "If I had just lost my (fill in the blank) how might I react to this? Am I being sensitive to their current situation? Check yourself.

3. If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all. This old saying of your grandma's still rings true. This doesn't mean that you aren't entitled to your opinion or feelings, of course you are. You just aren't entitled to add them to weight of what the grieving person is already carrying. So, if you have something to say that may be suspect, keep it to yourself. At least for the time being. There will be a day and time in the future when it is appropriate to bring that sensitive topic up. Remember that the grieving cannot be expected to hold anything inside. Imagine if you had all of your skin removed and all your soft tissue and muscles were exposed to the air. Imagine the pain and rawness. Imagine how sensitive your nerve endings would be. This is how child-loss grief feels. Our nerves are so fried that a light summer breeze would create a wave of unbearable pain and send us down the rabbit hole of insanity. It's a delicate balance...surviving the days, months and years after losing our child.

4. Be accepting. No matter what you get on any given day. We cannot control how each day goes, any more than a non-grieving person can. Some days are manageable, as much as they can be. Others are disastrous from the start. For me, if I start the day by crying it out in the shower, it's going to be a tough one. I just cannot recover. For others, they might be set off my something as simple as the dog getting extra dirty in the yard, or a simple sound that gets under their skin. Anything and everything can break our ability to cope. So can nothing. Accept what the grieving person can give, or lack thereof, in any given moment. Accept that it can change from one minute to the next. Remember that for them, life is just one moment at a time. I know that is impossible for someone who has not lost greatly to truly comprehend. Just try your best.

5. Have forgiveness at the ready. When the grieving snap--and they will snap at some point or another-- and it is in your general direction (regardless of fault) challenge yourself to let it go. Again, put yourself in their shoes (as best you can) and remind yourself that they are doing the best they can. Be forgiving. Know that their pain is all they can feel. So don't expect them to apologize. They may not be able to feel sorry. Pain is all they can feel. Pain and emptiness. Empty where their child (or spouse or parent) used to be. Repeat these words to yourself "It isn't about me." As often as you need to. For as long as it takes.

6. There are no time limits on grief. Set your expectations accordingly. Steve and I watched a movie the other night where the main character lost his best friend. The movie fast forwarded to 6 months later and someone told the man that it had been six months. He said it like "it has been six months so snap out of it." Please don't ever say "It has been X amount of time" to someone who is grieving. I don't care if it has been 15 years. Grief lasts as long as it lasts. In some cases that is a lifetime. When it's for a child, it will last a one day. I will be this new person, a grieving mother, until I am reunited with my child. That is how long it will take. It doesn't mean that things won't change or that we won't find joy in life again. I'm sure that in time we will. But we will never stop grieving our child. The pain will never 'get better' with time. Time does not heal all wounds.

I hope that both the grieving and those supporting them can understand the intentions behind this post. Anytime I write down my feelings and open up my heart so that you can read about my pain, it is so you can look through the window into my life and get some understanding of how difficult this is. I don't expect anyone to really understand. But at least I can help you try. That is all anyone can ask. Just try. I have to believe that if this loss had happened to someone else, someone I cared about, that I would do everything in my power to try to understand and be there. Of course, we have learned to expect nothing. Be grateful for what we have. No one is more grateful for what they have than we are. We know how quickly it can all be gone.

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