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.