They—whoever “they” are—always say that there’s nothing more devastating for a parent than to lose a child. And while I’ve always understood this intellectually, it wasn’t until I had a child of my own that I really got it.
I used to roll my eyes (and friends can attest that it doesn’t take much to get an eye-roll out of me) when I’d hear women go on and on about how they never knew how much they could love another human being until they had a child. Blah blah blah…
And damn it, they were right. I admit that the love I feel for my daughter is almost painful, and a different kind of love than any I’ve felt before. My husband feels the same, as I imagine do all parents.
When I saw online a photo of a Palestinian father in the West Bank carrying his dead infant daughter—just as when I saw media coverage of the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary, I felt those parents’ pain in a different way than I could have pre-baby. That could be my daughter, innocent and lifeless in my wailing husband’s arms. She could be the little girl who gets gunned down in her classroom, or hit by flying shrapnel in a war zone or…by a bomb in downtown Boston. She could just as easily be my child. I understand that. And the thought alone is enough to bring me to tears.
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But to the parents of sweet little Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy killed in the Boston Marathon Bombings, I’ll never say, I understand. I wouldn’t say it to a Sandy Hook parent, any more than I’d say it to a father in Palestine or Syria or a mother in the Sudan.
Why? Not because I don’t want to offer comfort, or say something to ease their pain, but because I can’t possibly understand. To lose a child in any manner, but especially through senseless violence, must be an immeasurable, irreparable pain—a pain that one can’t begin to fathom unless it’s happened to them. I don’t know what it’s like, so I won’t pretend to understand. To say that I did would be insulting to the grief and heartbreak of those parents.
I do understand, though, that it is purely luck that separates me from knowing the pain and infinite sorrow of Martin’s parents or of the parents of the Sandy Hook victims, or of that father in Palestine, whose dead girl cradled in his arms looked so much like my own living, breathing, laughing daughter. I understand the luck of geography, the luck of a relatively trauma-free life, and the luck of not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I understand that my luck could change in an instant, in about as long as it takes for a gun to go off, for a missile to hit the roof of my house, or for a bomb to explode.
So no, I won’t patronize a grieving parent by saying I understand his or her pain. Luck has thus far saved me from that dreaded insight. But I will grieve with them and for them as best I can, and I’ll hold my daughter a little tighter. And I won’t roll my eyes anymore when I hear a mother going on and on about how much she loves her child. That much, I do understand.