The Club With No Title (and Five Things You Can Do To Help)

Nov 30, 2021

        We don’t have a title!
I wasn’t quite sure I understood my friend, sitting across her living room from me.
         We don’t have a title. You know, like woman who have lost their husbands are called “widows.” But mothers who have lost a child have no title. She looked at me as if I’d have a logical explanation. Honestly, in the 20 years that I’ve belonged to this peculiar group, this thought has never occurred to me. But I also understood that this precious woman, who has not even buried her son yet, was not thinking in a linear way. It’s just part of the crazy package, trying to get a foothold somewhere, feeling for something familiar or safe. But you can’t. Instinctively you know you can’t because it’s all changed – everything. People like to call this Shock. I guess it’s as good a word as any, although it seems to denote something fleeting, that when it subsides, you will be “back to normal.” But there’s the Big Lie.

Recently I was contacted by a stranger. She said she read my book and loved it. Then she said she gave it to her psychiatrist friend who was visiting from San Francisco because she had a client who lost a son two years ago and “was stuck.” I paused at this. Stuck? According to who? To an algorithm learned in med school? To an impatient counselor who is frustrated by a mother’s inability to “move on?” This could be conjecture, but in the 20 years that I have sat across a table sharing coffee with women who are trying to comprehend a world without their child, I still can’t come up with a Normal. In fact, I tell them, “Be as crazy as you want and take your time. There is no wrong way.” This drives people nuts who don’t belong to this club. You don’t get it, you never will, unless you lose a child. And we hope you don’t.

My mother lost a son when she was 36 and I was eight. After that, every time she heard of a child dying, she’d look away, her eyes suddenly turning dark, and say, “Someone’s life is about to never be the same.” Deep calls to deep. She knew somewhere there was a mom falling to her knees, a mom becoming one of us – the very exclusive group with no title.

I’m often called when this happens locally. I don’t think it’s because people think I have an answer or some kind of formula. You can’t stop a tsunami. More and more I believe it’s because people are afraid. It’s not only unfamiliar, but it touches a deep nerve within every parent.

Maybe I’m not really in control.

But the thought is quickly vanquished, like a bad dream. Instead, we try to figure it all out, just like Job’s friends in a story ancient as time, but still so profound today. Or we run.

“An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t…Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.”― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

And then I get calls like this: “What can I do for …?” or “I don’t know what to say!” That’s a good place to start. So here’s my five things. I know there’s a lot more, but this is just a punch list to get you started.
1. Be a listener. That means forever, because a mother always wants to talk about her kids. Yes, even when they’re dead. You can’t make us feel worse, or remind us of our loss. We don’t forget, ever. We just get good at acting like we have so you can be more comfortable. I still love it when people tell me Spencer stories, or just say, “I miss him!”
2. Please don’t say, “Call me if you need anything.” I know you mean it, but we won’t. We have a hard time getting fully dressed every morning. We don’t know what we want or need, other than our child back. So be creative. Surprise us!
3. You can’t fix it. We don’t really notice what you do, it’s just that you care. Conversely, we also notice what you don’t do, or if you’re not there.
4. We learn to smile, to become two people. A public person, and a private person with a pain deep and inexpressible. It’s a long exhausting road. Remember that. We need a lot of grace. Be gentle.
5. This is not a matter of who is strong. No mom is strong enough to bury their child. Dumb cliches like “God never gives us more than we can bear!” or cheap platitudes like, “At least you have two other kids!” or “I could never go through that!” offer no comfort, and maybe just add to our pain and isolation. Try being quiet, giving hugs and just being there.

Right after I lost my son, one of his dearest friends, Emily, came and stayed with me for a couple of months. I’m sure she did a lot I never noticed, but her sweet presence, her smile and sometimes her tears mixed with mine gave me great comfort. She was just there, accepting my craziness, no answer to offer, just love. Did I mention love?

I’d like to come up with a snappy title, but the truth is, we know who we are. We greet each other with a sense of relief and familiarity. “You know,” we will say. I do.

Almost twenty years down this never-ending road, I am grateful for so many who chose to come close. In a fumbling, awkward dance of love, you reached into my brokenness and stayed. Thank you for that. But I could never be where I am today if it weren’t for the one who was always there, never left and still stays – Jesus, “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” He was the anchor that kept me, the Healer whose hand stayed pressed against my shattered heart. And He is the only one who can Redeem – beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning. Find Him now, before the waters begin to rise. It’s the very best thing of all the Things You Can Do.

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
    while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
    will not reach them.
 You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

Psalm 32:6,7

Miss you Spence!