Dumb Things Said: the horror
by Kara L.C. Jones

One person with a belief is equal to a force of
ninety-nine with only interests. - John Stuart Mill

Let me say at the top here, that I am only one person with a belief about the content that follows. But I feel so strongly that the family stories shared here are so awful, that you may find my attitude more forceful than the opinions of "ninety-nine" others who may have "professional interests" in the field of bereavement care.

Everyone keeps bugging me about my cynical attitude toward professionals in the fields that offer care to bereaved parents. Now I do not, by any means, have a cynical attitude toward them all! I do not mean to stereotype. And I do want to note that there are *exceptional* professionals out there -- and for each and every one of those exceptions, I am *most grateful* and so pleased that you are all on this earth making an effort to educate other professionals.

But I hear *so many* horror stories on a daily basis that I cannot ignore them. The reports I get from bereaved parents are just overwhelming. Yes, this is anecdotal, and you can disqualify my whole reason for this article on that basis -- but you know what? Even if there is just one professional out there doing harm to bereaved parents, it is not okay! And if that one professional happens to be doing that harm within your organization, wouldn't you want to do something about it?

Now I also want to acknowledge that finding grief support is a very subjective and personal thing. It may be that some of the horror stories are really just personality difference between people who just wouldn't naturally work together under any circumstances. And bereaved parents are hyper-sensitive to anything that does not feel supportive to their process of living life-after-the-death-of-a-child. I know this from my own personal journey. BUT I also think that if we disqualify the experiences & perceptions of bereaved parents, then we never look at reality (subjective or not), and we never take the leap of making change!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You cannot convince me that all the professionals are right and all the parents are wrong. It just isn't that black and white. I think it is the degree to which we understand what "support" truly means, the degree to which any individual can honestly understand grief. So I am not trying to set up right and wrong here. I am trying to illustrate the unhelpful techniques -- trying to bring light to the horror stories that are stuffed into closets, so that we all might look at them and then make some changes.

So what do I mean by "horror story" anyway? Well, let me give you a few examples of things I heard from bereaved parents in just the last 10 days or so. Now keep in mind, they sent me these tidbits under the heading of "Dumbest things anyone has ever said" to them about grieving the deaths of their children. Keep in mind that these things were said by "professionals" who were suppose to be helping them:

1) "Healthy grieving lasts no longer than 30 days."
This little gem came from a therapist who was working with a family whose child died 3 months ago. THREE MONTHS! That's all. This family hasn't even gone thru the full cycle of "firsts" yet -- first school year, first Christmas/Winter Solstice, first New Year, first Spring thaw, first meteor shower, first anniversary of the conception date, the birth date, the death date. And this "professional" is telling this bereaved mother that "healthy grieving lasts no longer than 30 days" and that she was endangering her marriage by continuing to grieve!!!!!!???? HELLO????????? On what planet was this professional trained???!!! This woman came to us because she seriously had GUILT now, on top of grief, because she felt she was not handling the grief correctly. There is no "right" or "wrong" to grief, folks!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This bereaved mother is just fine. The "professional" on the other hand...???

2) "You just need to help your wife realize that her feelings are lying to her. Women are too emotional and you need to talk down to her. Play an emotional story problem game. That should help."
This was said by a "professional" to a bereaved dad. This "professional" was telling the dad to "talk down" to his bereaved wife. This was a bereaved dad struggling with his own grief and sadness and anger and this "professional" is suggesting that the dad be abusive to his wife?!!!!! If you happen to be this "professional" mentioned here, I sincerely hope you lose your license to practice because you are dangerous!!!! My response to the dad here is this: All PEOPLE grieve differently and have challenges communicating with anyone, let alone partners, after our children have died. Men are not from Mars, and women are not from Venus -- we are all from EARTH and must learn to deal and communicate through our senses of "different and the same".

3) "Your child wasn't really a baby because she was stillborn...you are not a baby until you breathe...so you are grieving over nothing."
Okay, you really don't want to get into feminist abortion politics with a bereaved parent of a stillborn child. When a woman has an abortion, she *Chooses* not to have that child. When a woman has a miscarriage or stillbirth, she *did NOT choose* to give up that child. That's it. That's the difference. I don't give a hooey about politics and personhood and all that crap. I'm a feminist, too. I marched for *choice*. I gave to money to Planned Parenthood. I expected that *CHOICE FOR ALL* meant supporting ALL women, INCLUDING THOSE WHO *CHOSE TO KEEP* THEIR PREGNANCIES. And that would mean supporting them if their babies should die. You cannot segregate choice. We either have choice and offer support for ALL choices. Or we don't have choice. So let me tell you that this mother of the stillborn mentioned above who was seeking help -- well, she chose to keep her child. She carried for nine months. She out grew her clothes. She gave up her job. She turned her office into a nursery. She bought a safer car. She had rock hard breasts full of breast milk with no one to feed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What do you think she's grieving?

4) "Why are you still crying... what is motivating it?"
This one came from a counselor working with a bereaved mother *one month* after the baby died. What is MOTIVATING it?! Again, what planet?? I don't get it. What in the world did this "professional" think this woman was crying about? Okay, I'll try to be a little more objective about this one and say that the "professional" involved here didn't mean to be offensive -- that *maybe* she meant to say, "I see you are in pain. Can you tell me a little about what you are feeling today?" But you know what? IF THAT'S WHAT SHE MEANT TO SAY, THEN SHE SHOULD HAVE SAID IT!


Maybe the "professionals" who played parts in the stories above would have different versions of the stories. But my point is that it really doesn't matter if they have different versions or not. The damage has been done. These parents are now experiencing guilt on top of grief. These parents are already talking to me, to other members of their support systems, to anyone who will listen -- about how badly the "professionals" did when "caring" for them. That alone seems like it should be enough of a reason for all professionals to pay some attention.

Bottom line for professionals: BE GENTLE. Think before you open your mouth to spill out theories or politics or whatever else you were trained to say. Better yet, get some addition training that hopefully will be better than what these "professionals" above where trained to say!!! If you don't know where to find that training, contact the MISS Foundation and get your behind to the 2004 Passages Conference.

Bottom line for bereaved people: You have every right in the world to seek support that actually supports you!!!!!!!!!! For details on your "Consumer Rights" when seeking therapy or counseling, please see the "Finding a Therapist" article at the MISS Foundation site.

And then please consider the following Kota idea:

For anyone seeking therapy support, make a list of questions you would want answered -- litmus questions -- questions like, "We honor the birthdays of ALL our children, living and dead, every year. How will you support me during those difficult times?" And call therapists to interview them with those questions.They should be willing to give you 15 free, consult-only minutes on the phone where you ask these questions and get answers - you may have to make a phone-appt-consult to do it. If, based on their answers, you are willing to invest the time and energy to go and actually see them, then do it. But if they won't talk to you, won't answer the questions, or give lousy answers, *don't bother with them* and move on to the next therapist on the list till you find one you feel would truly support your experiences!!


Please note: This is my personal opinion as a bereaved parent and should not be considered medical advice nor be taken as a "professional" condemnation of the therapeutic process as a whole. :)



About the Author
Kevin Smith fan, zine creator, bookmaker, movie watcher, dreamer, tool of the peace movement, sometimes grumpy, would rather just write and never edit or publish again (but can't seem to extract herself from it!), sometimes inspired, always awed by the beautiful minds of people like Nash, advocate for bereaved parents everywhere, creator of the long forgotten Iowa GRRL, and so much more. If you have questions or comments, send email to editor@kotapress.com

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