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Grief: Changing the Conversation - Part I

We Need To Say The Words

By Erica Sonnabend

October 1, 2020

Have you ever had sad events in another person’s life leave you feeling completely unsettled and upset? I don’t mean the true empathy and compassion that we feel for another’s heartache, I mean when their loss event hits you in a deeper, more personal place? As if you can imagine and feel yourself walking in their shoes. Sound familiar?

This happened to me this morning when I heard the terribly sad news of Chrissy Teigen and John Legend losing their newborn son due to complications with the pregnancy. I don’t know many of the details, but that isn't necessary. What I connected to was an image shared of Chrissy in her hospital bed and her devastating comment about driving home without her baby. The shock, sadness and emptiness of that statement made by a new mother moved me to tears. Wow. That hit me hard.

In that moment, I didn’t see a celebrity with a public image, I saw a mother who had just given birth and had to say an immediate goodbye to her baby boy. I felt the hollowness that comes from physically leaving the hospital without your baby and the obligation to tell everyone in your world that your precious child has died.

I spent a few hours, after reading that news, feeling the uneasiness of the harsh reality of a bereaved parent. I did not expect that opening my heart up to this tragic loss would allow me to reconnect in a very meaningful way to my own loss. The honesty of these parents this morning was so helpful to me today even though the death of my own son happened more than twenty-two years ago. Can you believe that? Just when I thought I had "thought all of the thoughts" and "felt all of the feels" about my loss, here I was. I realized three very important things this morning.

The First Thing: There is still more of my story to tell and feelings to express.

As I read the news this morning, my mind kept flashing back to my own experience in December 1997. After months of pregnancy complications, my infant son, Elijah, died at four days old in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit after being born prematurely. Although I have replayed and retold the details of my hospital stay many times, I had never expressed my feelings about leaving the hospital…without him. Nobody really asked much about what happened immediately following his death. The car ride home isn’t something I had thought in a long time, but I’ll never forget it.

It was winter so the leather seats in the car were cold. It was nighttime so everything was eerily quiet, still and dark. The streetlights streamed brightly through the window so I put my face in my jacket to block them from hitting my eyes. The hour and a half ride felt like it took days, but in some way that was alright with me. I wasn’t ready to pull into our driveway without our baby.

I was silent about my feelings for years after that ride. Until now, I hadn’t made the connection to that horribly empty car ride and some of the horribly empty feelings that have followed me for most of my days since then. So why do I feel compelled, inspired and supported to acknowledge, feel and express my unresolved emotions now? Because a grieving mother bravely and honestly changed the conversation for me. She said the words today that I couldn't say then. She opened the door.

The Second Thing: When people honestly mourn, the door to healing opens.

Celebrity or not, how generous of both of these parents to share so deeply and so publicly that their beautiful baby died and how that made them feel. No parent should have to endure this heartbreaking pain, but sadly so many of us do. My heart aches when I think about the loss of our precious babies and the lifetime of unfulfilled hopes and dreams we carry. Also heartbreaking, is the fact that we often do not share our deep pain with those in our lives – at least not for long anyway.

I used to believe that there was some "invisible time clock" on expressing my grief. Ironically, it never seemed to be the right time to bring up my sleepless nights, feelings of failure, crying fits and paralyzing anxiety about something bad happening to my beautiful daughter born the year after her brother. Thankfully, I have since learned that the "time clock" is invisible because it simply does not exist. If it did, I wouldn't be writing this. The time to openly talk about my son, our journey and my life without him is today, tomorrow and always. It's the same for bereaved parents, their loved ones and for the greater good of our society. Yes, for the entire society.

The Third Thing: It's time to change our conversation about grief and loss.

Grievers need to be heard - not left alone. Being truly heard is what makes it possible to get out of bed and face the world somedays. It's the first step down the pathway to discovering real joy again. We need more conversations that allow for total honesty and acceptance about the losses we all face. Grief is felt in our hearts and hearts need connection – not isolation.

I have no idea why Chrissy bared her heart, soul and grief in the posts I saw, but I am so grateful to her for doing so. Through her own loss, she helped me connect to my unresolved pain by speaking her truth. "Saying the words" is part of the conversation we need to have. No, it's not easy to talk about or to hear about such painful circumstances, but that is where the healing is. Wholehearted conversation and active listening creates a safe place for our grief to be heard instead of hidden.

There is great purpose and freedom in walking through your own history with loss. You can decide who you share your deep feelings with, but please do share them. The ripple effect of doing so will help you and those you love in ways you may not have realized were possible. We need to say the words.

Be well, friends.

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