Dear Cretins/Bottom Feeders
What Not to Say When a Child Dies
Dear Cretin/Bottom Feeder at the Barber Street Park in Sebastian, Florida (or anyone who does this): Do not ever, in your gross insensitivity and supreme ignorance, tell a parent what they could have or should have done to prevent their child’s death. Just say you’re sorry, and shut up.
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I shut up myself rather than respond to the cretin I encountered on a recent Sunday in the park. While pushing my granddaughter on a swing, a couple brought their two-year-old son over and the father began pushing him. I said how much I liked the park, especially the shaded walking trail.
The dad, I’ll call him Cretin, agreed and said that a friend of his, although having terminal cancer, walks to the park daily, walks the trail, and then walks home. Cretin added that his friend is participating in an experimental drug trial. Cretin said that, nonetheless, his friend’s chance of a cure was near zero.
I had recently heard a Radio Lab program titled “Tumor Talk” on NPR and told Cretin his friend might want to check it out.
“In fact,” I said, “I e-mailed a doctor on the show. My little girl died of cancer 28 years ago, and I asked him some questions and we discussed how cancer cells mutate and become resistant to chemotherapy.”
Cretin said, “We only do alternative medicine. We focus on diet and avoid chemicals.”
Cretin’s comment surprised me for a few reasons: I just told him and his wife that I had a child who died, and neither of them acknowledged that. It was the first time in twenty-eight years that someone ignored me when I noted my loss.
Also, after not expressing any sympathy about my child’s death, Cretin shared his cancer-prevention philosophy.
I was stung by them brushing aside my child’s death, but I knew I had to say that diet and avoiding chemicals provide no guarantees.
“Sometimes, nothing prevents or cures cancer. Cancer cells are rogue cells. That’s why it’s so hard to treat,” I said. “I fed Alexa a wholesome vegetarian diet. We avoided sugar and processed foods and she still got cancer.
Cretin shook his head: “Oh, no. You can’t do vegetarian.”
The weight of Cretin’s words compressed my spirit. “You can’t” parked on my left shoulder, and “do vegetarian” parked on my right—concrete blocks of pain numbing me into silence.
I kept that silence for the sake of the two innocent children on the swings. I staunched the angry retorts in my mind. I kept calm and focused on my hand’s gentle push on my granddaughter’s swing.
My unsaid words creaked with the movement of the WD-40-starved swings. In a few minutes, Cretin, his wife, and child left. I don’t remember saying goodbye. I recall only the words, “You can’t do vegetarian” ricocheting in my psyche.
I felt searing pain at Cretin’s words. In his know-it-all stance on disease, he pointed an accusing finger: “You can’t do vegetarian.” Unsaid were the words, “You did vegetarian, thus, you’re responsible.”
My grief and my healing process have been ongoing for twenty-eight years. I know why people say (and presume) certain things: They believe if they do X, Y, and Z, they/their child/spouse/whomever they cherish will not die. I understand their fear-based efforts, so my anguish from such comments as Cretin’s doesn’t derail me for long.
My heart aches for bereaved parents who haven’t had significant time to process and heal from their grief. The insensitivity of questions such as the following crushes them:
• The parents of a teen killed in an automobile accident are asked if alcohol was involved.
• The parents of a drowned toddler are asked if they had a pool alarm.
• The parents of a murdered college student are asked why she went to a party alone.
• The parents of a bicyclist killed by a drunk driver are asked if their child was wearing a helmet.
• Parents of a baby who lives only a few days because of devastating birth defects are asked what caused the birth defects.
• The parents of a stillborn are told they can “try again.”
• The parents of a suicide victim are asked if they knew their child was depressed.
• The woman whose baby dies of SIDS is asked if the baby was sleeping on his back.
• The parents of an overdose victim are asked if their child ever received drug treatment or counseling.
• The father of a little girl who died as a result of a bizarre seatbelt malfunction is asked if his other children still wear seatbelts.
Most people are well meaning and are not insensitive on purpose. But those questions and comments still hurt. It’s important that people know that other than consoling, heartfelt words, it’s best to ask no questions, offer no answers, and especially never ever advise a bereaved parent what they could have or should have done.
Most bereaved parents suffer the infinite loop of “could have/should have/wish I would have.” No one should add to that distress. Only after processing and beginning to heal from their loss—and even then it’s hard—do bereaved parents know the futility of “could have/should have/wish I would have” thought progressions.
Bereaved parents know we cannot change what happened. We know we will live the balance of our lives without our child.
It’s a heartbreak living without a loved child (no matter if that child was six months gestation or sixty-seven years), but in spite of that, many of us have succeeded in having lives that are rich—lives that have great joy.
Help us cultivate joy. Help us be more compassionate and empathetic in spite of and even because of our loss. Be more compassionate yourself. When you hear of child loss (or any loss), just say you’re sorry. If you must ask a question, let it be this one: How can I help?