The Norm (noun): Something that is usual, typical, or standard
It’s just occurred to me, that there’s a very definite line. There’s a point at which society is comfortable and accepting of bereaved parents, but where is it?
Let me backtrack a bit, for I’ve been trying to get this straight in my head for a while.
When things are outside of the norm, society gets uncomfortable. That’s because most people don’t have to think about these things, because it doesn’t affect THEM. And when you’re in the majority, it’s easy for people (myself included) to form opinions – strong opinions, at that – about things they know nothing about.
Think about the treatment of minorities, gay or disabled people; society has over the years marked these groups as ‘other’, ‘different’ or ‘broken’ and used it as a reason to oppress or silence. We don’t understand (or try to understand) differing perspectives, so we mark people as abnormal, and espouse how we think they should behave.
Which is ridiculous really, seeing as we live in this 21st century, ego-centric world where everyone is told that they’re special and so individuals are, by definition, desperate to stand out. So some oddities are clearly acceptable? Not ‘prolonged’ grief around baby loss though. That’s not deemed quirky, cute or eccentric, that’s just plain uncomfortable.
So where’s the line? What’s acceptable to society and what’s not? If you lose a…
One year old child (or older): Everyone completely understands why you’d be grieving. Lord, you’d be a monster for doing otherwise. Good, all on the same acceptable grief page there.
One month old child: All are (rightly) up on that empathy train. People are bringing over casseroles (not that anyone eats them).
One day old child: So awful beyond words, those poor parents.
Ok, so we’re clear: Child is fully grown, exits the womb, dies: empathy abounds. But what about…
3 weeks before due date: Life can be so cruel. They lost their child!
16 weeks before due date: Hmm, now we’re entering murkier territory. Babies have survived from 24 weeks, it’s rare for them to come out the other end completely unscathed, but it happens. These babies and parents have to fight, they still need support, right? Yet this is where, I think, the empathy line starts to emerge, you can see it appearing in the distance.
17+ weeks before due date: Deaths before 24 weeks are sometimes called ‘early losses’ and considered ‘unviable’. Society starts to say “those babies were never going to make it” and this may be where the allowable grief becomes time-limited. In fact, this is where I think the line switches from empathy to sympathy.
So society allows some children to be grieved indefinitely, but others aren’t. Is it because when a child, fully (or near fully) grown, exits the womb it’s a baby that people can fully picture? Fully formed and long-limbed? Is this more ‘understandable’ to the majority? Is it a ‘greater’ tragedy because the baby was supposed to have lived, could have lived, should have lived?
But, haven’t we missed the point here? It was always a tragedy. Wasn’t it always about grieving LIFE and the loss of that life and that potential? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all loss is the same, or that all grief is the same, but that grief is not a choice!
So all grief should be acceptable, for as long as the bereaved is grieving.
There is no timeline to grief. And if someone is ‘still grieving’ 5 years later, that shouldn’t be considered weak or odd or strange, because:
It’s not crazy to still be grieving, it’s crazy that society expects you not to be.
It’s all VERY muddled in my head, because I had a baby at 19 weeks, who exited the womb and lived for an hour. Yet I don’t feel that society (or myself) allows myself the same kindness as if she were born and lived for just one hour, full-term at 40 weeks. It is very different, I know that. In most ways it is different, but in some small ways it’s similar.
It’s muddled because it would be different for me if Summer had been full term (no one – myself included – would ever expect me to forget or move on quickly), but it would be so much worse (because OF COURSE it’s worse, all those weeks of carrying, all that extra time, those hopes, those dreams building).
It’s muddled because although she lived, she wasn’t supposed to. She wasn’t supposed to have been able to survive for an hour. And instead of forever celebrating that and how incredibly special and rare and amazing that is, society will start to say:
- “20 weeks was not viable”
- “You should be over it by now”
- “You’re thinking about this too much”
- “XYZ handled this much better than you”
- “It’s time to move on”
People want you to be normal (I want to be normal again!), but perhaps normal is not the objective anymore. Can you see how I used to think one way (an expectation of how this grief should be short lived) versus how it has been (months of blogs and the discovery that it cannot be overcome)? Neonatal death has been very enlightening. My eyes and my mind, as well as my heart, have been opened.
So I’ll tell you where I now think the grief line is:
It’s wherever the bereaved person tells you it is.
It is for them – not society, not you – to determine.
Do not think them crazy. Support them. Encourage them. Talk about their loss. And if you don’t understand this, there’s something wrong with your head and heart, not theirs.
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