Some old friends of ours recently experienced a full-term stillbirth. Upon hearing the news, my heart just sank because that road is so, so long and hard. Three years into it I feel like I have a lot more understanding and general acceptance, but the first few days and weeks are an absolute and overwhelming heart break. The reality is no one can say anything to you that will make you feel better. Even words of empathy mean nothing because the shock and devastation are so enveloping. I had never experienced such emotions as abandonment and betrayal and isolation until after Goodwin’s death. And while I was surrounded by supportive friends and family, his death literally broke me apart inside.
In times of tragedy, knowing what to say is incredibly difficult. Obviously words of love and thoughtfulness are appreciated and do buoy you up, even though they can’t take away the pain.
I have learned through my experience, however, that there are certain things we say (generally and in religious circles) that have a strange effect. While these statements are well-meaning and sincere, they have some undertones that I don’t think most people think about (and I didn’t either until people were saying them to me). When Eldon and I discussed multiple topics following Goodwin’s death, we affectionately called these “pleasantries” or things people say to help you feel better or things people say when we talk about death or difficulties. The only problem is, when we examined the implications in these cliches we realized how they could be hurtful and confusing to someone dealing with a difficult loss. Some people may disagree with my opinion on these and that’s fine, but from my experience, the following interrelated statements have mixed messages.
- “Your baby fulfilled his life mission.” At first when this was said to me, I fully accepted it. It is in line with my general beliefs, and in some ways it makes you feel like your child was somehow special and thus didn’t need to live or be tested in order to return to God. Like I said before, it is a pleasantry. It can make you feel good or bring comfort. The only problem is by saying your child didn’t need to live, it comes across that his/her life was not important or worth having – it devalues them and the hopes and dreams you had for them. When you are the person experiencing the loss and someone says that to you, it can actually be really offensive (although it’s never meant to be). This statement also exerts that we know why people die. I can accept that there may be divine reasons why some people die, but generally speaking, there are many natural ones. Instead of believing that my child died because he didn’t need to live, I am okay accepting that there was a physical reason that caused his death and I can learn to cope with his loss. It is easier for me to accept that there was a life he didn’t get to live versus a life he wasn’t supposed to live. Further, I am okay thinking what it would have been like had he lived, versus believing that my child’s life was only meant to last a certain length. I believe that Goodwin had just as much to contribute in life as any other person born but he just didn’t get the chance to do that.
- “It was God’s plan for him.” / “This was God’s will.” These statements are very similar to the one above in the sense they try to provide a reason for why something happened. They are meant to bring comfort – and can. However, when I thought about them more, they made me feel betrayed by a loving Heavenly Father. They were incongruent with my personal view of God as a loving parent figure who would not plan or create devastation in my life. I learned to accept that God may not intervene with certain events in my life, but I could not accept He would cause them. When it comes to God’s will, I honestly feel that we mislabel events as His will versus general concepts or behaviors. I believe it is God’s will to love others and to develop ourselves. I believe it is God’s will to pray to Him for help and to strive to be a good person. Beyond some of these basics, I think He lets us choose how we want to go about things. I don’t think God is a micro-manager. I don’t think that our life stories are fully written and that what happens to us is just a replay of that script. There are a lot of factors – some beyond our control – that determine a lot in our lives. And honestly, we just don’t know why certain things happen or don’t happen. I believe that God is aware of us and will help us personally, but I don’t know how much He controls. The absoluteness of these statements, thus, makes them uncomfortable for me.
- “It was his time to go.” Again, we don’t know this. And honestly, in my situation, when is it ever time for an unborn child to die? I don’t necessarily think there is a right time for anyone to die. For some reason people just die earlier than others, whether it be genetics, disease, location, or unfortunate accidents. There are too many people who die prematurely with their lives ahead of them and families to care for for God to have chosen that time for them to die.
- “You needed to go through this in order to learn something.” I agree with the idea that we can learn from our difficulties. But again, I don’t think that specific difficulties have to specifically happen for you to specifically learn something! Sometimes we just have unfortunate things happen. But I don’t walk around asking myself, “What does God want me to learn from this?” I just don’t think that is very constructive. Like I said before, what He wants us to learn from life is pretty universal, but how we learn those things will vary based on our individual experiences. And I think how God may help or guide us will vary as well (and I believe this can be very personal and specific according to our needs and circumstances). While it may be different for other people, I honestly don’t feel that Goodwin was supposed to die. I don’t feel that that had to happen. But it did happen, and I have to deal with that fact every day. But, if I try to use it as an opportunity to learn compassion and faith then I can feel that his death was not in vain. I can choose to create a legacy of understanding and happiness despite the heartache, and that is God’s will and His plan.