The Grieving Parent and the Pressure to be Positive

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By Suzanne Leigh

It was one of those situations I’d been warned about from other grieving parents. I’d been asked the “any kids?” question by a friendly nurse for a research project I was volunteering for that required giving a blood sample.

“I have a daughter …”
“A daughter! What grade is she in?”
“Fourth.”
“Just like mine! Any other kids or is she an only child?
Umm …

So this is the quandary for bereaved parents: Do you deny the existence of the child that passed away, tell them that they died or do you talk about your late child as if they were still with us?
“I have another daughter. She’s almost 14.”
“And what’s she in to?” says the nurse as she primes the vein in my arm for the blood draw.
Wasn’t expecting that.
“Well, she liked art and animals, and she used to like to dance, but … she passed away when she was 12.”

The nurse drops my arm as if it were a dead fish and looks at me with muted horror and compassion.
“I’m so sorry.”
“I’m so sorry, too.”

There is a thundering silence followed by a stilted conversation about how she died “if you don’t mind me asking.” I had been OK with the silence. It seems an appropriate response to the shock waves caused by the bombshell I’d dropped in that quiet nondescript clinic.

“You have beautiful veins, by the way,” she says as she dabs the blood from the puncture site.
Unusual conversation segue — from Natasha’s fatal brain tumor to my beautiful veins.
“Well, thank you.”
“And I’m really sorry about your daughter.”
“I am, too.”

A brief silence. Too brief.
“But I’ll bet you’re grateful that you got to have her for 12 years.”
Oh no! (While this is something that grieving parents say to each other and even to those who aren’t grieving, it isn’t usually well received when it comes from a non-bereaved parent.)
“Actually, I had hoped my daughter would be alive for another 70 years or so, so I’d say I’m sad rather than glad.”
“I see. Well thank you for participating in the study. Take care!”
Phew! At least she didn’t tell me to have a great day.

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I am wondering what it is about that conversation that left me discombobulated. The nurse was pleasant and appropriately sensitive to what I had revealed, and no doubt she was somewhat disconcerted herself. She had expected to process me as any other patient — breezy small talk, needle prick, Band-Aid and off they go on their merry way. Instead I’d told her that my family was not like her family: I had a daughter that had died.

It was the well-intentioned comment about gratitude for having her for 12 years that left me flailing to be understood. Most of us appreciate people with an upbeat approach to life. Those with a can-do, we-shall-overcome attitude are easier to be around. We want them to be our friends and we want them as our neighbors and colleagues. But for many of us whose children have died, we don’t want a well-meaning friend or acquaintance to put a positive spin on our loss. We want acknowledgement that our child was horribly cheated and that as their parents we have to live through a tragedy that cannot be fixed.

In a few days’ time Natasha would have been celebrating her fourteenth birthday. I would love to have seen her graduate middle school and go to high school. I would love to have watched her blossom into a young woman and seen where her wild imagination, big heart and zany sense of humor would have taken her. My heart hurts for what was wrenched away from my daughter.

So maybe this is what I wanted to convey to the nurse. When you said you were sorry — that was enough! Don’t try to make it better for me (or for you, perhaps?) by thinking you have to make me see the bright side of the death of my child and send me off with a smile.

Just let me grieve, please.

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