Every griever has their phrase.
The phrase that makes them want to explode in tears and explode in rage and just explode.
Mine is “Well, now your mother is an angel looking down on you from heaven.”
I know, you’re mad now, aren’t you? You meant so well when you said it! What could be more loving and then ANGEL? You are TRYING SO HARD!
See, we grievers know all that. We just wish you’d said something else.
I have history with the angel thing — with my mom actually.
Before my oldest was born, I had a devastating miscarriage around ten weeks into my pregnancy. I didn’t know a single person who’d been through a miscarriage (which of course wasn’t true — start telling people you lost a pregnancy and watch the hands go up. Just another thing we don’t talk about), and it felt like the biggest loss I’d ever know.
With the benefit of a decade, I can honestly say there was unexpected grace in the experience. The first was I got see what my husband was made of. To deal with his feelings, he’s not a “honey, I’m going out” kind of guy. He sat on that couch and matched me cake slice for cake slice until we’d cried enough and numbed enough, to rest and reset and hope again. We were incredibly lucky. We had three kids (and six miscarriages).
I also met some inspirational moms at an on-line support board for women who have experienced pregnancy loss — one of whom still slays me with her intelligence, wit, brilliant musical taste and general badassery in my Facebook feed daily. She’s a complete gift.
And I got the gift of muddling through some murky waters with my mother.
I was already in therapy at the time. At the end of my session filled with tears about my unrecoverable loss, my therapist said seven terrible words:
“I think you just want your mom.”
Ugh. My mom and I were coming out of a stage in our relationship where we were all knees and elbows with each other. Lots of inadvertent hurts. Mostly, she was just being herself, and I was being an asshole. I was trying to find my place as a woman in the world and took half of what she said as judgment and the other half as stupid.
Pushing off your parents to find your own way is a well documented developmental phase (called launching…like we are pirate ships) — funny how those books never have footnotes that say, “*and most people look back having successfully made it through this phase, and cringe at their behavior.”
Anyhow, I mostly did what my therapist said back then so I went home and asked my mom to come. She was grateful and teary and said she’d wanted to offer to come, but she wasn’t sure if that was the right thing, and she felt like she never knew the right thing with me anymore, and she would be on the first plane tomorrow.
About an hour later, in what will forever stand like the Nobel peace prize of parenting on the mantel in my heart, my dad called.
“Hey, Meg. Your mother told me that you asked her to come down? I just wanted to verify you ACTUALLY want her there before I buy her a ticket.” He was 6'1, 220 and WHISPERING.
I told him I was as shocked as he was, but apparently, the thing that was going to help me the most was my mom.
I picked her up at the airport early the next morning and it was the second thing she said to me. We hadn’t even stopped hugging yet,
“Well, now your little baby is looking down on you from heaven..”
I physically cringed. I imploded. But I didn’t say anything.
By midday, she had said it five or six times.
I knew she meant well.
I knew she loved me.
I knew that if I didn’t stop her saying what obviously comforted her, was intended to comfort me (but actually felt like being violently shoved from behind), it would damage our already hard-fought place of stability in our relationship.
I wasn’t gentle. I was in too much pain.
“Oh my God, you HAVE to STOP saying that!”
She looked shocked and scared.
“I don’t believe THAT! I don’t get to be comforted by that because I can’t believe it. I don’t believe in heaven!”
She was white as a ghost.
“But you go to church…”
She was bewildered by my inconsistencies (as am I, every damn day) but hugged me while I crumpled in tears. She told me she wasn’t trying to hurt me (which I knew) and I told her I was trying not to get upset, but I already was SO UPSET by everything.
She said lots of things. The most loving of which was, “I’m glad you told me, or I would have never known.”
I wish I could have been more gentle, but my anger and hurt sometimes do a better job telling the truth.
No more angels looking down on me from heaven.
They were there again when my dad died, of course. They have been offered again with my mom.
And here’s how I feel. I feel that people who love me and are offering this phrase as a gift would want to know that by the time it makes it to my heart it has morphed into an IED (an improvised explosive device for those of you who have wisely avoided the news for the past 26 years).
On my best days, I’m jealous it comforts someone else and not me. On my worst, I pull out of the conversation and rotate the completely loving person who said it on to the “do not call list” for a while.
BUT here’s what I TRY do — you may have seen me do it on Facebook (I say try because it’s hard and it takes energy, and I don’t always have it).
“That is so loving. Thank you. I don’t really believe in heaven so sometimes that hurts more than it helps.”
I’ve only had someone double down once, tell me I should try harder to believe. Obviously, I can’t speak to that person ever again.
But usually, people do better than that.
Sometimes I have to stand there and see their feelings get hurt. I don’t mean to say “its either them of me,” but I sort of do. But I don’t leave. I try to help with the recovery if I can.
I just don’t think it serves anyone to let people who mean to help, cause hurt instead. No one wants that.
And look, in those early days when the loss is so fresh and your brain is completely jacked (that’s a technical term we therapists use) most of what I’m saying here isn’t really possible. Just try not to drown. Come back to this later and when you can protect yourself, try.
We both have a role. The grievers and those supporting us.
If we can give grace, meet love with love and not hurt and anger, there’s a chance we all hurt less, or maybe just feel less alone.