Those Bolshie Bereaved Parents: Should We Shut Up And Be Grateful?

By Suzanne Leigh

“Thank you for delivering the homemade meals. We now have far more food than we can possibly eat,” read the entry of an online journal written by a bereaved family whose daughter, like mine, passed away from cancer. “If you would like to help us, we would appreciate restaurant or gas gift cards. Thank you.”

Restaurant  or gas gift cards?  I didn’t know which of the two emotions elicited from that message was the more extreme: admiration that this family had the audacity to stipulate exactly what was helpful to them, or sympathy for those big-hearted friends and neighbors who had toiled over their pots and pans making lasagnas and casseroles, which were now destined for the compost heap (in favor of dinner at Domino’s Pizza?).

When children are diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, parents are besieged with offers to “let us know if there’s anything you need.” Few of us are probably very candid about what it is we really need. But when we lose our children, perhaps we are less inclined to conform to etiquette.

‘Don’t hug me’

“If you see me, please don’t hug me. It might make you feel better, but it doesn’t help me,” wrote another parent after the passing of his child. “Please stop sending the kids candy and other sugary goods,” requested another.

And this week a bereaved mother who started a nonprofit following the death of her daughter to brain tumor, disparaged the terminology used for kids with cancer.  “Fighting” cancer and “warrior” were not OK with her, she stated.

“She was not a warrior. She was a girl, little more than a baby,” Sheila Quirke wrote of her daughter, Donna. “She held no weapons, she had no strategy, she answered to no general.” That observation piqued my interest because although I find the fighter/warrior metaphor has become enervated through overuse, it seems more empowering than “cancer patient” or worse “cancer victim.”

“Angel” is another no-no for Quirke because it romanticizes kids with cancer. “Does it make it prettier to think of thousands of angels floating above us, protecting us in a way that we were unable to protect them? Let’s not do that anymore, OK. Let’s not lay our own needs on these kids. They and their families are already carrying more than their fair share of burdens.”

Although I don’t perceive of my late daughter as an “angel,”  the term seems innocuous to me, and I wondered if Quirke’s outspokenness may have caused awkwardness with those generous donors and volunteers at her nonprofit, who might have used “angel” and “warrior” themselves.

Anger that distracts from pain

But as a bereaved mom, I understood the pain that fueled her diatribe. We couldn’t control our kids’ cancer, but maybe we can try to control or at least make a noise about the stuff associated with our child’s disease that has us ticked off.

Many bereaved parents responded to Quirke’s battle cry. Yes, “angels” and “warriors” frosted their derrieres, too. And there was more. One parent blasted “passed away” (why not “died’) and another laid into “losing” one’s child.

Some bereaved parents’ comments sounded angry, hostile even.  I think that’s because as parents who are forced to live through the most excruciating pain one can contemplate, anger is … a distraction. It allows us to vent, to rage, to target those individuals or situations that have disappointed us, or worse have disappointed our late children. It enables us to rally the troops and find like-minded individuals who want to join our team and blow off steam with us. It offers a spirited respite from the sad, sad never-ending journey of grief for one’s child: an emotion that is alienating, silent and immobilizing, and infinitely overwhelming in its hopeless reality.

Is it reasonable for bereaved parents to ask others to refrain from words like “warrior” or “angel,” to tell them enough already with the sugary stuff and the home-cooked casseroles, to keep their uncomforting arms to themselves — but restaurant or gas cards are welcome? I don’t know, but I do understand the despair and impuissance that drive these demands.

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