“You Can’t Save Them All” and Other Words of Advice I Can’t Stand to Hear
Recently, I lost a teen to the world of her unwell mother. The presiding courts were in a different country and a different culture and will not rely on the expertise of mental health professionals – yet. It is changing, but those changes will be too late for this young woman as well as her brother. For them, the damage will be done.
I cry and I rage. Present tense. Still.
Friends and family have cried and raged with me. But occasionally, I would hear “You can’t save them all."
Sometimes I’d find myself in a controlled state of frustration trying to explain that I wasn’t trying to save the world; I was trying desperately to help this one young girl and her brother. Only 2 kids. Tops. It’s all I had room for. In my heart. In my family. In my simple home. Just these 2 kids.
And looking at the shock on the faces of those who thought they were being kind, I’d remind myself that I can’t simply explain this scenario to anyone and everyone and expect the perfect response when they can’t possibly know all that brought us to this point. I need to pick and choose the recipients of the stories of my freshly broken heart.
Don't get me wrong: I know that I have been guilty of the “meant-well reply” myself. But more and more lately, I try to shut up and ask internally “What would I need to hear?”.
Or better yet, ask the person before me, “What can I say to help?”
Or, better still, ask, “What shouldn’t I say to you right now?” Now, there's a question with a twist! And it has created room for breathe-able conversations!
With that question, I now watch and listen as people seem so relieved to rant about the painful and occasionally ridiculous remarks that others have made – and I have just saved myself from being one of those “others”. By asking what not to say, I’ve almost unintentionally given this person a safe place to have a mini tirade and then to laugh and live the moments that they need to live as they describe how life has been – or hasn’t been.
We are all guilty of making those offbeat remarks and they usually are in response to a loss – a moment of grief and grieving, whether it has just happened, is happening, or even if it happened days / weeks / months / years ago. The list of possible well-meaning slips is endless and you will recognize them and cringe (having said one yourself or having had it said to you):
- One day they will come back to you. They will be grateful for all that you have done for them.
- Thankfully you knew them as long as you did.
- There must be a reason you lost this one now.
- Luckily you can try again.
- You can always remarry.
- You should start dating.
- You can always get another dog / cat / bird / gerbil / <pet> .
- It was only a dog / cat / bird / hamster / goldfish / <pet> (Somehow the reptile and small mammal family are more easily dismissed.)
Grief is an amazing process. Going through the sadness and fury and the despair and moments of laughter is insanity. At times, I live in a roller coaster inside a washing machine. Often, and without warning, I drop from a high altitude and am speeding into a corkscrew and then am awash in every feeling from tormented sadness to extraordinary anger and even an inexplicable fear before being wrung out. By the end of this ride-cycle, I am nauseous.
Mostly, I think I’ve got this all worked out and then I see something (food? pet? billboard?) or hear something (pop song? music from broadway musical? YouTuber laughing and ranting at the same time?) and I’m exhausted by sadness.
Sometimes, it's simply a smell or even the feel of something. Whatever it is, I start to cry. Sometimes sob.
If an event reminder pops up on the calendar or mail just keeps arriving anyway, I stare, I get flustered. I go blank and lose my place in time.
And this grieving process now triggers other losses from my past – different scenarios altogether, but losses nonetheless.
I also find that I compare my grief to someone else’s and try to quash my feelings, believing I have no right to feel x or y or z when compared to So-and-So and his loss, or My Good Friend and her loss, or a stranger in a war-torn country and their losses. Then I know I need to regroup: Would I ever accept someone else trying to ignore their grief by agonizing how it compares on a “Global Grief Scale”? No. Certainly not.
Still I feel like I can’t trust myself. How can I ever know who will stay? Anyone may go at any time. Others are taken. Still others are lost to a system that won’t help them out.
I haunt myself with what more I could have done and should have said. That, I know, is part of the process. Perhaps the spin cycle.
Circumstances be damned.
I can’t see the future well enough to trust it. I know the present. And I know I that I feel that I have failed.
Right now, though, if you take my hand and look me in the eye and tell me, “You did everything you could”, I would be grateful.
Such a kind reply. And just what I need to hear.
Kat Rowan, CEO and Creative Director of TiffinTalk, recommends talk. TiffinTalk’s different cards lines inspire face-to-face communications that may help us help others grieve. Loss is challenging. Talk at such times can be even harder. TiffinTalk’s FindingYourVoice line for mental health professionals and their clients can help break through fortresses of silence, to help with those topics that get “talked around” instead of “through”. Talking Across Generations specifically helps adult children share stories of past and present and crosses into discussions of loss and planning for loss. And the Child & Teen line reminds us all that talking with our children about the silly theme for the week can help them to talk about the harder topics such as bullying and grief that just don’t surface at the moment we are ready to hear them. TiffinTalk: Tech Off. Talk On.