The auditorium was silent as the short-haired blond woman walked the few steps to the podium. The attentive faces of fellow bereaved parents looked towards her. The back rows were filled with nurses, doctors and midwives, all wanting to show their support, but feeling on the fringe on such intimate moments. She spoke calmly at first, but as she began telling of her daughter’s victory in her battle of early childhood cancer and her later hijinxs with text messages, her words quickly gained speed. She was animated as she spoke of how her daughter walked as a toddler when doctors had said it was impossible due to the tumor. Her voice lowered when she talked of the resurgence of the cancer in her daughter’s early teen years. She spoke of dropping her daughter off at cancer camp as a teenager, eager to spend time in her happy place. She was glad her daughter could make some good memories before she came home, when she would tell her that they could do no more. When she came home from camp, she had to tell her daughter that she was going to die.
It was a night of pediatric remembrance for any bereaved parents of children who died after getting care at the hospital. When the speaker began talking I wasn’t sure I was going to relate very well to her story; my daughter was a baby when she died, hers was a teenager. But when she spoke those words about needing to tell her daughter about her own imminent death, tears rolled down my cheeks.
I thought the worst was knowing that your child would die far too soon. But I think the worst might be knowing that and figuring out how to tell your child such a thing. I reflected that I was glad that I didn’t have to tell my daughter she was going to die. It’s funny the things we are grateful for- “I find myself thankful for large and small things, in the way of people who’ve lost two limbs and are glad not to have lost four.” wrote Elizabeth McCracken in An Exact Replica of A Figment of my Imagination. I am grateful that I didn’t have to tell my child she was going to die, says the mother whose child died. At least I didn’t have to do that.
I hate those words. People try to console me with “at leasts”
At least you got to hold her. Fifty years ago they just whisked my grandmother’s stillborn baby away.
At least she was born alive and not born sleeping.
At least you’re still young. You can always have another.
At least you got so many photos of her.
At least you had a vaginal birth.
At least you know you can get pregnant.
These are all things I am grateful for- but putting the at least in front of them minimizes my grief. There are no “at leasts.” At least I didn’t have to tell her she would die. No. That makes it sound like I should be grateful in some way about my daughter dying. When people say at least, they are either trying to make me feel better (they can’t) or trying to find some good in this whole situation (there isn’t). Intention with those words is good. But what I think people are trying to say is I’m glad. When people say at least, I feel like I have to defend my grief. I can’t respond well. But simply swap out the words at least for I’m glad and suddenly I can say “Me too.”
I’m glad you got to hold her. Me too.
I’m glad she was born alive. Me too.
I’m glad you’re still young. Me too.
I’m glad you got so many photos of her. Me too.
I’m glad you had a vaginal birth. Me too.
I’m glad you know you can get pregnant. Me too.
I am guilty of thinking and saying the at leasts as well. I’ve done it conversation with other baby loss moms. I’m catching myself. I even am guilty of saying to myself. At least I didn’t have to tell her she would die. No. I’m glad I didn’t have to tell her she would die.