Sunday, March 20, 2011

Several years back, I was hosting a training for professionals on the subject of caring compassionately for families whose babies had died. A conversation between bereaved parents on a panel and those in the audience arose regarding people who attempt to demonstrate their understanding for the pain you are feeling surrounding the death of your baby by comparing it to the pain they felt when a beloved pet died. I don't think I would need to elaborate on the fact that the parents unanimously felt pretty outraged when somebody said to them, "I know how you feel. My dog died last year and I had such a hard time coping". There was the feeling of anger towards these people but also disbelief that such a ridiculous comparison would be made in the first place. A caregiver in the audience raised her hand and suggested that she had extremely strong feelings for her cats, and that when her cat died it really did feel to her that one of her babies had died. I can remember at the time feeling surprised that she would offer this when it was so clear that all the bereaved parents were opposed to this viewpoint, but she did offer it and I seem to recall that the response from the parents was a muffled silence before the topic changed to something else.
Six months later, the same caregiver ran into me at a conference and confronted me about that very interaction. She told me she had loved the training and found it very informative and useful, but that she felt it was very offensive that, as the facilitator, I had allowed this conversation to go on which belittled people who felt strong feelings of love for their pets.
I can remember feeling shocked and surprised that she had hung onto this for so long, but also put on the spot and sorry, from the perspective of a fellow human being, that her feelings had been hurt. At the same time I was pretty sure that I didn't feel any different about whether or not the conversation was appropriate: clearly people are offended when people equate their baby's death with that of a pet. A parent panel had expressed their emotions on the topic, thus educating the audience. Was this not the point of the training?
However, I stumbled through an apology, saying I was sorry for having hurt her feelings, and that I would keep it in mind for the future. But looking back I realize how clear cut this is: it doesn't matter if her feelings are hurt, or how she feels about her cats, or the issue of whether you can love a cat as much as a baby. The only thing that matters, for her as a caregiver, is that bereaved parents are offended if you make this comparison. A firm statement, both in the context of the training during the conversation, and during this follow up discussion, should be that regardless of ones' opinions about pets and babies, it's important to respect that bereaved parents should never, ever be told that you understand because of the grief you felt for a pet. Never, ever, ever. Period. There isn't a conversation to have. It's only about learning where to draw the line. I wish that on the spot I would be better at identifying truth from emotion and laying it out, brick by brick, the truth of the matter.


C Tam said...

I tend to lay awake at night replaying conversations so that I can figure out the way I wished I would have said it. Then, one time I was given a redemptive chance to play out the very conversation I'd rehearsed in my insomniac mental wandering. It was awesome.

So I'm sure you'll get a chance to lay it out brick by brick sometime on this very issue. Be excited. It'll come. And now, I'll be better prepared to express on the issue too for having read this post. Thanks for educating and sharing your knowlege born of experience.

Hope's Mama said...

I think this is another perfect example of being able to say "you just don't get it unless you've been through it". I love my dog and I know if he died, I'd be devastated, but the pain I will feel wont even touch the edges of the pain I felt, and still feel, over Hope's absence. I think if you asked parents who have lost both a child and a pet what was more traumatic for them, I know what they'd answer. In fact that was a stupid thing to even write, as there is just no comparison. If you told me now I could give my dog's life for Hope back, I would give it without thinking or hesitating. Plus, we are supposed to outlive our pets. When you buy a pet, there is a general assumption that at some point in the future, you're going to have to bury it. That's the way the world is supposed to work.

Aimee said...

As someone who was part of this conversation when it happened, I'm a little surprised she had this much emotion about it. And know what? My beloved dog who was 13 died this past January. I had him longer than my kids. He ran with me, cuddled with me, did not yell at me, mess up my house, or demand things from me. And yes, I was sadder over the death of my baby.

Aimee said...

I have another question: Why is it that this subject comes up on every parent panel I have ever been on/facilitated? Why do people insist on comparing my baby to their dog/cat? I don't know--even before I had kids, I would never have thought that to be I just not love my pets enough? Hum.

Erika P said...

It's a good illustration of how we just shouldn't try to comfort someone by comparing grief. Period. I almost find the people comparing my baby to their pets easier to take than the people who say, "Well, at least you didn't have her for longer/lose her after birth/etc." It's tricky - connection is good, but I think many bereaved people bristle at being told "I know how you feel because I experienced ____" with the blank filled in with some other type of loss (isn't comparing babyloss to loss of a grandparent another one many babylost parents can't stand?). It does sound like you need more explanation of this, and I hope you'll have a chance. I think you will.

There was a time that this kind of comparison actually helped me, and that was in conversation with a friend who had lost her husband. They'd only been married a few months before he died, and she told me she could see a similarity in our experiences because we both struggled with getting other people to understand and respect the validity of our relationship with the person who died and the depth of our grief. But she never said, "I know how you feel;" she just pointed out this similarity and we talked about it, and I did feel that she understood.

Kimberly said...

Like Erika P said - we shouldn't compare grief. My pain over losing my mother, grandmother etc. is not the same as for anyone else who has lost their grandmother or mother, baby or sister.

Comparing takes the focus off the story and pain of the person who is grieving and onto the helping professional. Which ain't the point.