The nature of my work in a children’s hospital is that sometimes the children of the families we care for die. The nature of life is that everybody we love will eventually die, but we keep on loving them anyhow despite this terrible reality. This is what makes us human.
I do not know the right answer about what to say when a child dies. All I can do is not be afraid. Not be afraid of reaching out to their loved ones, not be afraid to speak the child’s name, not be afraid of not knowing what to do. All you can do is try.
My very first published essay was in 2002. It was called ‘Put your hand in her hand’ and it was my reflections about my dear friend Maureen’s beloved baby Scott, who had died two years earlier. It was about all the awkwardness and fear that comes along with supporting a friend after a devastating loss. I was an imperfect friend, often with my foot firmly planted in my mouth, but the important thing was that I didn’t give up on her.
Fifteen years ago this week, that little baby left this world, but he has never been forgotten. I dedicate this to all the families who grieve for a child. I look up into the night sky and see Scott and Avery and Matthew and Sydney and Kate and Haley shining down on us all. Peace and love to them, and to those who loved them.
Put your hand in her hand
-by Sue Robins
(originally published in Chatelaine, March 2002)
Whether your friend is aching because of a divorce, miscarriage or another brand of heartbreak, only one thing you can do is guaranteed to help. Sue Robins explains.
This was not the call I was supposed to get. The day after my friend Maureen was to give birth to her third child, the phone rang. I picked it up and heart a halting choked voice. “Maureen’s lost the baby.” “What?” I asked, confused. It was my former husband. I was in Vancouver visiting my brother. “Where did she lose the baby?” Then I understood.
Maureen’s baby, Scott Thomas, was stillborn on a Sunday in December. He was a perfect eight-pound infant. When I finally saw Maureen after she came home from the hospital, she appeared small and frail. Her fact was consumed with sadness. What I most wanted to do was bring Maureen’s baby back, give her the baby she deserved, the baby she so carefully nurtured those nine long months. And I wanted to hold Scott in my arms, admire him and coo at him and buy him little baby clothes and have I-want-to-have-another-baby pangs when I was around him. But I could do none of these. All I could do was be the best friend I could be to Maureen.
In a time of crisis, true friends come shining through for you. During my divorce, good friends clustered around me like a supportive tribe of women. Others fell by the wayside. What are the forces, I wondered at the time, that make or break a friendship? What keeps a friendship going through hard times? Grieving with Maureen and staying the course with her, I found the answers.
In the beginning, I felt desperate to alleviate my friend’s pain. I wanted to tear off a chunk of it and feel it for myself so she would not have to bear all the unrelenting sorrow. There was nothing I wouldn’t do. I organized the lunch buffet after the funeral, bought a picture frame for Scott’s photo, scoured the grief sections in the bookstore for any shred of information that would take away the crushing burden. I took flowers, dropped off cards, cleaned her house, babysat her other children. I did all this for mainly selfish reasons – I couldn’t stand to do nothing. I finally realized that my efforts were misguided when my six-year-old son said to me, “All you think about is Maureen and her baby.” His comment forced me to see that there’s a fine line between deep concern and doing too much. A hug, a gift, soft words, kind thoughts…none of these things bring babies back to life.
It’s not as if I couldn’t help my friend. My challenge was to follow her lead, to let her show me what she need. I remember being afraid to mention Scott’s name for fear of upsetting her – until she told me that it’s more upsetting not to mention her son. It struck me that, unless I was being offensive, I couldn’t upset her any more than she was already upset. By talking about her third son, I was honouring him and his place in Maureen’s heart. But it’s not easy. My mouth stumbled over Scott’s name. “Scott, Scott, Scott,” I practiced in the car on my way over to Maureen’s. Why was I so reluctant to say his name? I revered to pronouns, when I should have been saying Scott. In the same vein, for the first 12 months, I remembered Scott by dropping a card in Maureen’s mailbox on the fifth of every month. I wanted her to know I had not forgotten. Someone asked me why I did that. “You are reminding her what happened and not letting her move on,” the woman said. I responded by asking if she thought Maureen would ever forget. The death of her beloved baby is something that weighs on her mind and her heart all the time. My response might not have been perfect, but it was better than being paralyzed by discomfort. People are so afraid of doing the wrong thing that they err by doing nothing. It takes very little effort to say, “I’m thinking of you and your dear baby.”
And I ask to see photos of Scott. He is beautiful and peaceful and his lips are ruby red. I can almost forget that he’s dead until I look at Maureen’s face. The grief in her eyes, the sadness that burrows right down to her soul, kicks me back to reality. It’s painful for both of us, but healing too, to acknowledge that Scott was here.
Like all friends, I’m not perfect. I say stupid awkward things. I’ve been guilty of blathering on and on about clothes and movies and other friends when I’m with Maureen, as I seem to want to fill the air with my incessant chatter. I do this just to avoid a few seconds of silence and feelings of sadness. It took me a while to understand that Maureen’s grief was hers – not mine – and it was presumptuous for me to think otherwise.
While I tried to learn how to be a good friend to Maureen, I thought of how others had been true friends to me. For months after my divorce, it took all my energy to get myself out of bed and look after my children. I had none left to nurture friendships. My friends understood and waited, supporting me while I regained strength. As I sent through my own metamorphosis, my remaining friendships evolved into something more substantial and real. These women felt secure enough in our friendship and their own marriages to adjust to my newfound status as a single mother. They were patient with me and I have learned to be patient with Maureen. I let her be. Maureen helped me to accept sadness. I now know how to be with a crying friend. I just listen and hand her some tissues to wipe her eyes.
I also learned not to shy away from difficult conversations. I once asked Maureen how to talk about Scott. For example, I was not sure if I should refer to Scott’s birth or his death, for they are one in the same. Scott was born on December 5. She birthed him. I’m glad I asked because I didn’t want to refer to her son only in terms of his death or funeral. He was indeed alive inside of her; I witnessed his growth over the months.
I know my limits. I will never totally understand what Maureen is going through. The only person who speaks the same language as a grieving mother is another mother whose child has died. I have learned that there is no shame in saying, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.”
Two years have passed. Our lives continue. Maureen has since given birth to her fourth child, a healthy boy named Joshua Scott. I’ve made new friends and acquaintances. Scott’s birth and death taught me that I can’t expect Maureen to be the same person I knew before. Although we still go for coffee and see movies together, our relationship has changed inexorably. We are finding a new path, and in some ways, a new friendship.
I know what I have given to Maureen will return to me tenfold. If a horrible tragedy were to strike me tomorrow, Maureen would walk beside me in my pain. I know that much is true.