This morning, through the divine powers of social media, a friend and I discovered that a baby girl, around the same age as The Rainbow Princess (and who looks astonishingly similar to her) has run out of treatment options for her cancer. All that is left that can be done is to make her comfortable, and envelope her in love as she is taken off her ventilators and held by her parents as she slips away.
We discussed how sad, tragic, awful and unfair it was, we were both distressed, even though this little girl and her family are complete strangers to us. And then we started with the “at least”s.
At least she won’t be in pain.
At least they know she doesn’t have to fight anymore.
At least they can be with her as she goes.
And it made me think about all the “at least”s I was given, and how none of them made The Angel Princess’s death one bit easier. And it’s not just me that has been told these “at least”s. Every baby loss mother I know has been told a few of them. And I am guilty of giving them myself, despite knowing how useless they are.
“At least you already have a healthy child”
“At least you can have another baby”
“At least you got to hold the baby”
“At least you have great support”
Why do we do this? Why do we try and find a silver lining to such a catastrophic loss? Why can’t we let it be what it is? Which is truly, completely and unbearably tragic. Is it a protective mechanism, something to save us from a grief so intense? Do we think that if the circumstances are a different way, then the death will leave less emotional upheaval? And what happens when the “at least”s are true, but they don’t help the pain subside?
For me, many of these “at least”s had a flip side of making my grief harder. Yes, I had a healthy child at home already, someone to hold after I’d left the hospital empty handed, but it also meant that I had a small person completely dependent on me, someone I needed to care for, when I could barely care for myself. There was no time to sit quietly with my grief, there was no hiding in bed, no rest from the birth. There was my 2 year old, who didn’t understand why mummy was crying, who wanted to know where her baby sister was, and who needed to be regularly fed. Groceries had to be done, meals had to be cooked, bills had to be paid, and I had to keep on top of the laundry. I didn’t have family close by to take The Sunshine, or help at home, it was up to me to keep going. The Husband had to go back to work, life went on. We were broken and numb, but we had no choice but to get out of bed every day and face the world. It was so incredibly difficult to grieve, while trying not to hurt or worry my living daughter. But everyone still kept telling me: at least I had her.
Being told that your living child is compensation for the one you lost is akin to being told not to grieve your father because your mother is still alive. It’s pointless and illogical. It’s certainly not an “at least”.
I was also regularly told “at least you can try again”. It’s completely true, The Husband and I were physically capable of conceiving another child. But it is so much more complex than that. The child that came after would never be a replacement for the one who died. Nor would we want it to be. Just as our daughter who died would not have been loved more than her living big sister, had she too lived, our daughter who was born after does not extinguish our love, or grief, for her sister who died before her. A parent loves all their children, whether they are living or not. The Husband and I miss our passed daughter just as intensely as we celebrate our living daughters.
I understand that their comes a time where certain aspects of grief become less about despair, and more about gratitude. Where the “at least”s seem to make more sense. But let’s allow that to happen organically. Let’s not try and find our gratitude before we can. Let’s not push it on others, or try to make ourselves believe it.
Let’s be grateful for what we can, when we can. But let’s not pretend it somehow diminishes the grief. Instead, let’s accept it as part of the grief. I am grateful I have a healthy child, I am grateful that I was able to conceive, and carry to term, a child after my second daughter was stillborn. I am grateful that I had a kind, caring and wonderfully compassionate medical team around my when The Angel was born and while I was carrying The Rainbow. I am grateful that I have had excellent support since her death. But I cannot think of these things as separate from my grief, and my gratitude for them has taken time, and a great deal of emotional work. I still can’t think of them in terms of “at least”.
Pushing “at least” comforts on a grieving parent is not helpful, or healing. In that broken time of despair and hurt and anger, it’s condescending. Let’s just stop. Let’s stop saying “at least….” Let’s not be afraid to face grief head on, no compensations, no false comforts, no excuses. Let’s not be so desperate to offer comfort that we instead offer misguided condolences. Let’s accept the tragic, the awful, the scary, the catastrophically sad. Let’s be prepared to be distraught, overwhelmed, broken and vulnerable. Let’s make grief and grieving normal. Let’s allow it to be all consuming, knowing that the healing will come, in time, when and how it can. Lets allow gratitude to come when we can, without it needing to negate the pain.
Let’s stop saying “at least”.