Thursday, May 28, 2015

What Not to Say When a Child Dies

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.
* * * * *
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 Cretindoesn’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?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

You're Not Safe and Neither Am I

Think You’re Safe?
Empathy and Compassion Are Attainable
Absolute Safety Is Not
Young man drowns off Vero Beach. Toddler dies after being left in hot car. Teen dies from fainting “game.” I read the article headlines, but I don’t stop until I’ve read every word. Why? I feel an immediate deep ache for the child’s parents, family, and friends and I grieve with them. But I also want to know what happened and how or why the loss occurred. In the case of any newsworthy drowning, if it’s local, I want to know what beach, what time, and the weather and surf conditions. I want to know if lifeguards were on duty. I sometimes question why I want to know the specifics—and I even feel morbid for doing so—because knowing changes nothing for me and for the loved ones of the drowning victim. It can even be torture knowing the why, yet being unable to change the conditions that led to the drowning or any other tragedy.
In the recent drowning, the beach was not guarded, it was late afternoon, and the surf was rough. So my rational mind right away decided that if I avoid going to the beach or prevent anyone I love going to the beach at such times, I’m safe, they’re safe, we’re all safe.
 It’s clear what we must do:
  • Swim at the beach only when the water is flat and warm.
  • Swim only when hundreds of people are there in case you need help.
  • Swim only when lifeguards are on duty.
  • Swim only when no sharks, rip tides, and rough surf are present.
  • Swim only when the weather is perfect, not too much wind, maybe a light breeze to cool the sun rays on your skin, no storm clouds, no rain, nothing in the forecast for hours before and after your journey to the ocean.

If all the variables are stacked in our favor, then the beach is safe, safe, safe.
Except it isn’t. Nor are our home, our car, the airport (and of course not the airplanes), bicycles, cashews, public bathrooms, walking trails, schools, and even hospitals.
We could live in constant dread of every place we go, the means to get there, what we eat, how we play, how we work. However, such fears are unnecessary, exhausting, and futile.
My beach-safety checklist, although prudent, won’t guarantee a perfect beach experience, free of any mishaps. Certainly, we do our best to keep ourselves safe. We avoid dangerous ocean conditions, follow car seat safety guidelines and the rules of the road, and we avoid dark and scary (and stormy) places.
Alas, absolute safety is unattainable. The chaos that can strike on an ordinary day or in the course of a secure, serene life catches us unaware. As much as we yearn (and do our best) to stay safe and keep those we love safe, we don’t have an extra/sixth sense we would need to prevent every accident of the universe, because accidents are sudden, unplanned, and unintended.
The nature of most accidents and other fraught-filled events is surprise. On reflection, some of them could have been prevented. Reflection, however, is a present action and the accidents we wish we could have prevented are in the past.
Until we have working Time-Turners, we cannot change the past. It’s frustrating, but try as we might, we can make our present only so safe, because safety is relative; it reflects order, like an up-to-date first-aid kit tucked in our car trunk. Having that kit is important, as is checking beach conditions, following driving rules, and cooking poultry to safe temperatures. But part of life’s mystery is our sheer lack of control over so many events. Often, we are struck with joy at life’s surprises; conversely, some of them break our hearts.
In spite of my efforts, I know I cannot always be safe. Even so, when I learn of yet another tragedy and I asked those questions that really have no answers, I also shall ask additional, more important questions: How can I lend a helping hand? How can I express empathy and compassion? How can I help heal hearts?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Jesus, an Angel, or Just Another Homeless Guy?

Did I Miss an Angel or Was That Just Another Homeless Guy?
“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers:
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Hebrews 13.2, King James Bible
Jesus is not hanging out in
Sebastian’s Riverview Park, stinking of booze,
stale cigarettes, and unwashed clothes.

Jesus sightings or entertaining angels in Riverview Park? Nope. Not the last time I was there—as far as I could tell. I went to the park for some outdoor writing, and when I arrived, I passed a homeless man sitting on a bench, his dilapidated, but full, shopping cart at his elbow. Ignoring the “This park is smoke-free” signs, he curled his cupped hand hiding a lit cigarette toward his mouth.
Another homeless man sat at a picnic table not far away. When I sat down to write, yet another stopped and told me about his book, which sounded identical to The Four Agreements. Although he was kind of clean, I sensed that he, too, was homeless. He walked through the park, crossed the street, and ducked into a sports bar. When he came out, he carried a large paper cup.
Senior citizens, mothers and their young children, several squirrels, and birds also shared the park with me. The day was pleasant and a salt-scented breeze wafted my way from the Indian River Lagoon across the street. As the group of homeless men grew, however, I no longer felt the positive aspects of the park. When I left an hour after I arrived, at least five homeless men had joined the man on the bench. I wasn’t afraid—it was daylight and the park has few shrubs, so creepers have no place to hide, nor could anyone spring forth from a bush and give me a stroke.
I left the park earlier than planned with too few words scrawled across my page because I no longer was relaxed beneath those oaks. I simply was uncomfortable, but looking back, I know I also felt a bit holier than thou, which later morphed into a tad of guilt. Why? Because of the stories telling us not to ignore strangers or turn them away from our door lest we blow our big chance to entertain angels or even Jesus in disguise.
I admit that I also feel a tiny bit guilty when I ignore the latest “Share This!” “angel in our midst” experience on social media. Not sharing means I probably won’t get to meet many angels this side of paradise.
An overabundance of Internet stories tell about messages from beyond, spiritual exchanges, and meet-ups with God. A person might wonder why God isn’t talking to them, too. So many sightings of Jesus are reported that I’m concerned He’s become a spiritual shape shifter extraordinaire.
I’ve even read about benevolent spirits taking the form of bag ladies, big box store cashiers, and people broken down on back roads where no human treads within twenty miles. If  you can get over your Stephen-King-induced terrors and stop to help, then you’re bathed in the shining light of divine presence. (Or, nevermind, I’ll let Stephen tell that story. You also can watch variations on Criminal Minds.)
To be frank, I do believe in angels, God, and Jesus. I also believe in divine intervention and being in the presence of divinity (and not just Stuckey’s).
I don’t, however, believe that angels appear as often as folks—and especially social media—say they do.
I also believe—and know—that it reflects the best human traits when we show compassion, kindness, and even generosity in the form of a dollar, spare change, or a sandwich to bag ladies and homeless people.
However, in our “hide your kids, hide your wives” culture, should a homeless person knock on my door, I’m not going to let him or her inside—even if it means I lose out on entertaining angels.
It’s disappointing to some I imagine, but no, Jesus is not hanging out in Sebastian’s Riverview Park, stinking of booze, stale cigarettes, and unwashed clothes. If He is, all I have to say is: “Lord, please get out of here and head to Nepal, Haiti, North Korea, or even Baltimore—where you can really make a difference.”