What to say

On Nov. 30, 2010, my daughter June was stillborn. I had just entered my ninth month of pregnancy, and every appointment had shown a healthy, growing baby. We were given no explanation for her death other than the startling statistic that in the United States, 1 in 160 pregnancies ends in stillbirth. This frequency provided no comfort. We were devastated and broken.

After June’s birth, our family began the slow trudge of grieving. As unlucky as I felt, we were luckily surrounded by incredible support. Family, friends, and co-workers all expressed concern and shared their sympathy. I know it wasn’t easy at times. I remember being told on a number of occasions, “I don’t know what to say.” Neither did I. But the fact that someone was acknowledging my grief was important. It validated the invisible, heavy weight I carried with me when I returned to work, dropped my older son off at day care, or went to the grocery store. It helped me feel less alone.

It has been almost seven years since June died and was born. Our family has grown by two, and for the most part, we look like a family untouched by grief. We are happy. But no one ever “moves on” or “gets over” burying a child. Maybe “moving with” grief is a more appropriate expression.

Grief doesn’t come up in many of my conversations, but it does color the way in which I now view the world. Each time I learn of another person’s expected or unexpected loss, I think about what others may be saying, or not saying to the grieving. Silence is far worse than admitting you don’t know what to say. And the only thing worse than burying a child, or anyone else you love, is fearing that they will be forgotten.

The holidays are a time of joy and celebration, but they are also fraught with a great deal of sadness for many. Because we lost June less than a week after Thanksgiving and a few weeks before Christmas, I remember feeling quite strongly that I wanted all holidays forever canceled. The thought of celebrating made me physically ill. Her due date was Christmas Day. Happiness was not a part of my world, and I wanted no reminders of other people being happy, either. Grief is selfish. But that selfishness is what allows one to survive it.

It seems our culture has become so fearful of grief, we are often too afraid of upsetting someone to mention a missing loved one. A few tears shared in a quiet moment with a compassionate person is not something to be afraid of. Death touches all of us at some point. But that fact provides little comfort when you get the news. It’s understanding, empathy and a sincere concern that helps the living manage the grief. Despite what you may believe, grief is not a communicable disease.

Pause to acknowledge someone’s grief during the holidays. Even if you don’t know what to say. Say his name. Say her name. Say their names. Just say something.

Kelsey Francis lives in Lake Placid.

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