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The Hidden Names of Death

This year, on the 18th anniversary of the day we lost our toddler son, Jake, for the first time, I posted a story on Facebook about his joyful personality, along with many photos of the two of us laughing and playing. The response I received from my friends was immediate and supportive. I felt filled up, seen and understood as a grieving mom for the first time by my clan. I’m so grateful not to be carrying this loss alone any longer.

But part of my loss I’m still carrying alone, because what I didn’t include on Facebook were the many details of how we lost Jake—facts that 18 years ago stopped my social circle from rushing in with the support we needed as we grieved.

What I didn’t explain was that we lost Jake in what’s called a “failed” adoption. Nor did I explain that we spent $20,000 on a court case to keep our adoption plans alive, when another family in another city fostering his half-brothers petitioned the court for custody of Jake. Nor did I go into how the court gave us just two hours to pack him up and say goodbye after six months of raising him as our son.

I’m glad for Jake that he didn’t actually die. At least I hope he’s glad to be alive—especially since a year later I was told he was moved yet again, this time awarded to his newly paroled dad and his aunt. That’s the last I’ve heard of him. I don’t even know his new last name.

For my husband and I, losing Jake was a death. He’s gone from us forever. We have grieved his loss as hard as any grieving parents can grieve.

But for most people in our support circle who’ve known all the details of our loss, many of their condolences have been neither warm nor understanding.*

Oh hon, you can adopt another baby. 👎

What do you think the lesson is in this for you? 👎

At least you only had him a short time so you didn’t get too close. 👎

My husband and I learned that this happens to a lot of grieving people—so often in fact, that there’s now a psychological term for this situation: Disenfranchised Grief. A griever becomes a disenfranchised (outcast) person in their community when their friends and family misunderstand the depth of their loss and use condolences that stifle them and push them away at the very time when they need their community close—when they’re mourning as hard as if their loved one were buried in the ground.

And therein lies the crux of the problem.

When there is no hole in the ground with a coffin poised over it to shock us into facing death, when there’s no funeral for all to witness the family’s grief, when there’s no history in our community of treating a slightly different loss with care and respect, then most of us fall into diminishing or dismissing the griever’s feelings—all done unconsciously.

Unconscious or not, why would we say this…

It’s not the same as being pregnant and losing a child. 👎

…when it’s so easy to be compassionate with this?

Oh hon, this is horrible for you, and for Jake! I’m so sorry for your loss. 👍

I looked into this question for years—decades, actually—and have a simple to-the-point answer:

We’re not heartless people. We are afraid. So afraid, in fact, that experts say we fear grief even more than death.

To change this habit of pushing away grievers, we could trace the path of fear to see how and why we act badly around grievers. But I think it’s easier if we take it from a different angle: Let’s reach out now!

How do we reach out? With two straightforward steps:

1. We can get acquainted with life events that can be as painful as losing someone to death. Let’s see if we know someone already whose loved one…

  • is incarcerated

  • died of a drug overdose

  • was born with a disability (they’ve lost the healthy child they’d dreamed of)

  • is estranged from them (divorce, separation, runaway child)

  • died in a miscarriage

  • was removed from them due to legal reasons

  • committed suicide

  • needs their constant care (especially caregiver wives get overlooked more than caregiver husbands)

  • has a chronic or terminal illness (especially lung cancer gets blamed on the patient)

  • has an illness with no external symptoms (Lyme’s, Chron’s, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, etc.)

2. We can decide to reach out to a Disenfranchised Griever now:

Hey John, good to see you. I heard about your brother going to prison and I’m so sorry. That sounds really painful. 👍

Hi Christina, how are you? I’m stopping by with a few veggies from our garden and a pizza I made. I know you’re full-time taking care of Ben, and I thought maybe you could use a little care package yourself. If I can do anything to help—mow the lawn, get anything from the store for you—I’m a good fix-it person if anything ever breaks. 👍

I stopped by to bring you a little gift for your beautiful new baby. I don’t know if he needs extra care, but I’m here to help with anything or just listen. 👍

When we take the risk to reach out to someone, whether we know them well or not, we help prevent them from suffering a second loss—the loss of the support network they counted on and need to help heal from their original loss.

We can change a griever’s world with just a few words of acknowledgement.

By reaching out now, we can Be a Bridge to a Disenfranchised Griever—which is a truly healing gift.

*Due to the numerous cultural and personal variables within each of us, we must each find our own words for our condolences. Those suggested here are offered as guidelines developed after years of listening to grievers speak their mind and heart.


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Did I mention I wrote a book?

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May 10, 2021

Today is the 40th anniversary of my Father's death. Reading this website opened a flood of pain and releasing tears that I have not shed for years. Other losses and mourning experiences come flooding in--my favorite cousin, two dear girlfriends, a nephew, and my mother. . . I am so grateful for this beautiful space where I feel free to mourn and reminisce and experience healing. Thank you so much, Dana, for your precious gift of the Bridge.


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