When you lose a child, there are so many people who just.don't.get.it. People who won't ever mention your child at all, who like to go on as though it never happened. Then there are the platitudes: Time heals all things, It's God's will, and--my personal favorite--You can always have another baby. And when you do have another baby, people will assume that you are all better. No more grief and pain now that there's a child to hold, right? I also had a friend tell me she couldn't wait for me to start "feeling like my old self again." I didn't know how to tell her that my old self was gone, had died with my son.
Among the multitudes of people who will never understand, there is the rare gem of a person that does. I would say 90% of these people have lost a child themselves. Those that haven't are the type of understanding souls you don't meet often in a lifetime. As any bereaved parent knows, it is very difficult to decide what to say when questions like "How many children do you have?" pop up. The cost of confessing the truth must always be weighed carefully with the possible consequences: awkward silences, inconsiderate responses, my emotional well-being on that particular day. So sometimes I just say, "I have a little girl at home" instead of coming out with the whole story. But if I know I am speaking to someone who has recently lost a child I always tell. These people get it. Nothing can cross divides faster than a shared grief over a dead child. I feel blessed to hear their stories and I feel blessed to share my own every single time this happens.
Today I have been thinking about the first time I shared that complete and raw understanding with a total stranger. I never knew her name. Jer and I were staying at the Ronald McDonald House a block away from the hospital. We didn't really know any of the other parents, but Jer would talk to the others more than I would on his trips back and forth to fetch me things. She had shoulder length black hair and large brown eyes. Her little girl was also premature but born at a later gestation than Matthew with fewer issues and a higher birth weight. From the beginning, I was a champion breast pumper; I had gone from a pregnant woman who was horrified by even the thought of breastfeeding to a woman whose breast milk supply had flooded the NICU freezers to the point that I was asked to store it elsewhere. Jer was an immediate expert at assembling the hospital-grade breast pump. In the freezers, there was an almost comical difference between the measly baskets holding other women's breast milk and my own overflowing basket. The only conversation I recall having with this woman was her asking me for tips on how to increase her milk supply. She was trying very hard to breastfeed and she showed me her breastmilk bag with less than an ounce in it. Matthew died after 3 am. By the time we reached our room, we laid on the bed too exhausted to think. I thought I wouldn't sleep, but I fell into the strangest type of sleep I had ever had, a sleep I would come to know well in the following months. When we woke, it was approaching afternoon and we had matters to attend to at the NICU before we could go home. We packed our things. As we were leaving this couple met us on the stairs. I was out of it and paid little attention as Jer spoke briefly to the father.