My third daughter, Eva, was born and died three months ago today. She was born at only 22 weeks, too early to be saved, weighing exactly one pound. She had all her fingers and toes, perfectly formed features (she looked just like her sisters), and even eyelashes. She took in breaths and tried to live for 45 whole minutes, and my husband and I got to hold her the whole time. She was perfect. Her death was perfectly devastating.
I wish I could say that it’s gotten easier. Certainly, in many ways, I’ve accepted it as a “normal” part of my life. My hard days are fewer and further between, and I have a lot of hope for the future. But I still think of her at least a hundred times a day. It’s in the small things; I drive past the hospital where she was born and my mind is flooded with the memory of being told my daughter was going to be born too early and die, and we couldn’t do anything to save her; I glance at the box on my bookshelf that holds pictures of her funeral, and I remember my husband’s gut-wrenching sobs as he said goodbye; or I see a newborn baby being held by its mother, and I am acutely aware of the emptiness of my own arms.
Nothing is so isolating as grief. I am alone in my sadness, in my memories, and unless another has tread these icy waters, too, and offers me the warmth of her companionship, I have no one with whom to share my sorrow. In the past three months, I’ve experienced the rude awakening of how badly our culture deals with grief. Happiness, joy, we embrace with open arms. Frustration and condemnation, we’ve mastered. Even anger and rage are accepted under many circumstances. But grief and sorrow are the black plague of our time, as if sadness and bad luck were contagious to anyone unfortunate enough to be in their presence.
We don’t know how to handle another person’s deep sorrow, and yet it is almost a guarantee that we will all experience it. To say that we love each other as friends and yet refuse to truly walk with them through life’s darkest moments is to say that our “love” is only as deep as their ability to maintain a constant cheery (or at least, shallow) disposition. To truly love another is to face their grief full-on, look it in the eyes, and say, “I know that I will see you again, reflected in my own eyes, when my turn comes. But I am not afraid, for I know that my friend will be there for me, as I am here now for her. Her strength will inspire me to push forward in my moment of sorrow, and together we will conquer death through the hope that we share.”
That is what I want from my friends, and if you have a friend who is grieving that you don’t know how to comfort, it’s simpler than you think. You don’t need to have “the right words,” because the truth is that there are no words that can make the sorrow ache less. You don’t need to have experienced the same loss, because the truth is that no two losses are exactly the same and no two people experience loss in the same way. You don’t need to help them “fix” anything, because the truth is that no one can fix the pain of death, and you can’t hurt them more by bringing up the pain they already feel than you could by pretending it didn’t exist. Just let them cry and tell you their story, and if it brings up emotion in you, cry with them. The most precious gifts I’ve received since Eva’s death are the tears of those who have been brave enough to climb into the icy waters of grief with me, wrap their arms around me, and let the cold sorrow wash over them as it does me.
So let’s be braver. Let’s choose to experience the gamut of life’s emotions with our friends, to celebrate and grieve with them with equal fervor. And if you’ve made it all the way through this post, which has doubtlessly stirred some emotions in you, then you’ve done that for me. Thank you, friend.