Breaking the silence

‘How old are your children?’ asked a friendly women I had never met before. We were at a birthday party, I hesitated for a moment, but then decided to tell the truth. After telling the ages of my living children, I concluded with ‘…and the youngest passed away.’

Silence. Then she asked: ‘Oh! How old would that one have been?’ Relieved and grateful I answered her question. ‘Wow, that’s hard’, she said. And I said: ‘Yes, it is.’ Silence again. We both didn’t know what to say and continued to talk about other things.

Sometimes people react so well to what is so terrible. Sometimes the grief and your child are allowed to just be there. Because it is there. Not acknowledging her does not abate the reality of her absence. The sorrow, her place in our family, the fact that we would have brought a toddler with us if she had survived, all of that: it just ís there. If you don’t acknowledge that, if you stay silent ‘because you don’t know what to say’ (I don’t know either!!) you ignore an essential part of who we now are.

I’ve found that it makes a huge difference whether Amanda is mentioned or not. If her name can be said, if you acknowledge that she belongs to us, we can be present and quite relaxed. We can also laugh and enjoy, because we can also cry if that’s needed. But unfortunately the opposite is also true. When we feel we cannot speak about her and we are not allowed to express our grief, we can also not laugh. We have to suppress all emotions, because what if we suddenly accidentally cry? This has led me to be somewhat apathetic when attending a birthday party or gathering. That is, if I find the strength to come at all.

Do you mention your child or not? It is a FAQ amongst grieving mothers. We became very creative in acknowledging the existence of our deceased child(ren) without being too open. I say for instance: ‘I have four children living in our house’. This works for now, as all these children are still living in my home. Or: ‘I have four children here.’ I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say: ‘I have four children’ because that is not true. I have five children. My now-again-the-youngest is not my youngest and I don’t call him my youngest. Because he might be the youngest here, my youngest isn’t here anymore.

Sometimes people say we better keep it to ourselves that we lost a child, because it makes people feel uncomfortable. I’ve nodded with understanding. Because I, who always wants to please people and make them feel comfortable, thought: ‘yes, that might be something to be aware of’. But it didn’t feel right and later I realized something is wrong here. It makes other people feel uncomfortable? Really? For how long? A few minutes? A day perhaps? And how bad is that? It IS very uncomfortable! And you might feel bothered by it for a short time. We have to live with it day by day. If I keep silence about her, I do more than helping other people to not feel uncomfortable, I ignore a part of who I am. I ignore that I am the mother of five children and that I think of her so much and miss her so terribly. It feels like betrayal, of Amanda, but also of my other children and my husband. Because they have another sister. He has three daughters and we are so proud of her and so glad that she has been here. That is also why we are so sad.

Besides all this. A lof of babies die before, during or after birth and there is a lot of silent grief about silent babies. If I talk about my little Amanda, I often hear stories about other women who lost their child. There are many older women mourning in silence over their deceased children. But by being silent, their grief did not become less and I’ve noticed that when I share about my little girl, there comes room for others to share about their little ones.

That is why I think you can better say something if you know someone has a child that doesn’t live anymore. Maybe you can even help by allowing people to talk, to cry, so that it can be weaved into their lives. So that they can laugh too, because they are allowed to cry as well.

Don’t assume we will talk about it ourselves. Maybe we have the feeling we are not allowed to. But ask about our children. Name them. Acknowledge their existence. And please, let’s cry AND laugh together.

First published in Dutch on October 8, 2018.

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