Tips for Impatient Sympathy

Fellow Traveler,

It has been seven weeks since the death of my sons. Well, from this moment, it has been 48 days, 15 hours, and 56 minutes to be exact.

Those 48 days contain a lifetime.

With each day that passes, it is becoming harder and harder to remember the joy of our pregnancy, now that it is so clouded by memories of the fear we felt and by the raw pain of our grief. There is a distinct Before Twins and After Twins (a B.T. and an A.T.) – a moment in our lives delineating when everything shifted and changed. Truly, I am not the same person After as I was Before. Something in the core of my being has been lost, and what remains has been hardened under the pressure of the pain. In a strange way, I am weaker now, yes, but at the same time, I am stronger now too. Now shattered into so many pieces, I have found that I am unbreakable. I just am not who I was that lifetime ago.

Yet, those 48 days also contain just the blink of an eye.

Each week has passed like a whirlwind, and each day has been a blur. It honestly does not take much for me to fall back into that hospital bed, with all of its terror, as if it was happening again in this moment. One night, I had a dream where I was going to deliver my sons, but this time they would be healthy and whole. I woke myself before I could see them, knowing instinctively that I could not handle waking from the beauty of that dream into the anguish of this nightmare. Patrick too remains haunted each night by dreams in which he cannot rescue me or rescue his children. The house is on fire, and he is powerless to save us. Or two children have gone missing from the church, and he has been accused of their murder. When I am awake, I am similarly haunted. Sometimes I have instinctively found my hand caressing my now-empty tummy. Or when I first wake up, I have irrationally wanted to use the fetal Doppler to check for their heartbeats, just as I did every morning when they were still so vibrantly alive.

This grief is all-consuming for us, ever present right under the surface. And it was easy to deal with it when Patrick and I were able to grieve alone, isolated at home. Relatively easy, anyway. But now we have returned to the realm of people, and already it seems that the world’s patience for our pain is wearing thin.

After 48 days, Patrick and I have already felt the pressure to be “normal.” Our jobs both require it of us in order to function. Patrick has to perform baptisms with a smile; I have to go before grieving parents and ask them to donate their child’s organs without breaking into tears. We put on our professional hats in those moments, and then deal with the inevitable feelings later in the safety of our home.

This pressure is expected. But there are other ways in which we are being pushed back into “normalcy,” even when nothing feels normal at all.

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What is life-consuming for us, sometimes seems to be an uncomfortable annoyance for others. Like this fabulous quote from the inspirational (Presbyterian pastor!) Fred Rogers, some people become uncomfortable if we mention it. They squirm when we say Ezra and Leo’s names. They quickly look for a pithy platitude to try to stifle our pain. They desperately try to change the subject to small talk, only to find that no subject is currently safe. “Do you have any plans this summer?” for example, instantly reminds me that I indeed had HUGE plans for this summer but now there is nothing but an empty void, now that my August due date is no longer looming over us.

Most people have not been like this. Thankfully, we have been blessed with tremendous support – from family, friends, and especially from the congregants at our church who have served as a sort of family away from family since we now live so far from home. But I know that as each day passes, more and more people will grow tired. It is hard, exhausting even, to support a person in pain. With time, even they will expect us to return to “normal” and will pressure us to “move on.” Deep down, they will want it for their own sake as well as for us. I understand. I have often felt that way too.

I know that this is a prevalent experience among grieving people. I remember a man I knew years ago who lost his wife when he was only in his sixties. They had been married for over half of his life. And though I was too young to speak with him openly about it, I am certain that he missed her desperately. Only six months later, however, I remember that others began pressuring this man to start dating again. These pitying people would tell him about their single friends, and they would try to set him up on dates. I remember thinking to myself even then, six months is not a lot of time…

Yet, there is limited patience for people in pain.

Often, we can handle someone else’s crisis or tragedy for a moment. We can bring the casserole or offer a listening ear. “If you ever need anything,” we promise, “just ask.” But as the pain lingers, we get distracted by our own lives, or we become increasingly exhausted as we discover that we only have so much room to hold in our hearts for somebody else’s needs. Our sympathy grows impatient.

People struggling with chronic illness must know this. The first crisis brings casseroles and cards filled with concern and support. But months or years later, a life in constant crises becomes a new “normal,” almost like a white noise to others, and that support may dwindle even if the pain remains the same.

Likewise, the person struggling with unemployment must know this, as the bills grow but sympathy wanes. The person struggling with depression or anxiety knows this, when their feelings may feel indescribable or irrational to a world that cannot understand this invisible pain. The person caring for their elderly parent or for their child with special needs knows this, as each day may feel like a battle and a singular struggle of devoted love. The person grieving a divorce may know this, as they try desperately to stay strong for their hurting children.

For my fellow travelers who too understand what it is like to be left behind by the world, please know that you are not alone.

And for others who are wearily trying to walk alongside Patrick and me or with someone else battling a lingering pain, here are some tips to help:

  • Don’t flinch!

    There is a distinctive reaction that happens when I mention Ezra and Leo to someone who is uncomfortable – they flinch. When I make a reference to what happened or if I speak of my pain, they become noticeably uncomfortable. There are few things that feel worse than vulnerably speaking a pain aloud and then having it rejected. There is an honor if someone dares to share something so personal with you. Their vulnerability is like a fragile piece of glass – precious, yet precarious and easily shattered – so hold it gently and with care. Don’t flinch, or you may drop and break it.

  • Name it.

    After some time passes, people stop using the name of someone who has died, worried that mentioning their name will bring up pain. Yet, that silence is deafening and perhaps even more painful. There is an innate fear when others stop using their name that they have been forgotten, that it is like they never existed at all. In our case, this fear may be even more daunting, because no one other than ourselves knew Ezra and Leo personally. So dare to name them aloud.

 

  • The 3-month mark is often the hardest. This is when they may need you the most!

Some grief literature suggests that between 3 – 6 months may be the hardest in the grief process. The funeral is over, the casseroles have stopped coming, the sympathy cards slow, and life starts to return to “normal” for everyone else, even if it does not feel normal at all. This is also when the initial shock and denial feelings may start to fade and the full force of the reality of the grief strikes. If you want to help someone in pain, mark this time in your calendar and make it a point to reach out. They will likely need it.

  • Don’t expect your timeline to match their timeline.

Everyone’s journey is different. Our stillbirth journey may be markedly different from others, because it has the added component of infertility. So our grief may be especially prolonged, since we will also be processing our other losses and struggling with the fear that we may never be parents at all. So even if you know someone with a similar experience or even if you have had a similar experience yourself, be open to the fact that everyone’s journey is their own and their timeline may be different from what you would expect.

If you are reading this, I thank you for your patience. I know that you may be tired, but I appreciate your continued support and your love. We will need it as we face this new “normal” in the days ahead.

7 thoughts on “Tips for Impatient Sympathy

  1. Jenna, you and Patrick are still and will always be in my prayers. As will Ezra and Leo in Heaven. Hugs from afar.

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  2. Praying that you and Patrick have strength for the moment. I will pray that God gives you glimpses of the beautiful life that Ezra And Leo are living with Jesus. Their lives were so significant. Their souls eternal. Love to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Lori, thank you for this. I thought of you, and especially Zach, today when I saw a red cardinal fly by in our backyard. I took it as a sign from God of your prayers to us.

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  3. I am so sorry for the losses of your desperately wanted children–all of them. My baby girl was stillborn 3 weeks ago on my due date. Coping with the pain has been a struggle and as you know there are intense emotions. Peace be withe you.

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    1. Deborah, I am so so sorry. Those intense emotions are indescribably overwhelming, and you’re right – it can be such a struggle to cope with the pain. I am glad that you found this page. It helps to know that we are not alone. I will be thinking of you and your baby girl often in the days ahead. Feel free to reach out whenever you need support.

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