There is a fair amount of bad news that originates in the NICU. You may have found yourself on one end of the telephone either giving or receiving the news of a life-changing diagnosis or death. When you are on the receiving end, do you say something cliche? Or risk saying something stupid? Or say nothing at all? I think I’ve done all three.
I found myself in this situation recently. A friend of mine had her first child and then her husband passed away suddenly just 10 days later. She texted me the news and I did not know what to say because nothing I could say would make it better. She was now a 20-something-year-old widow with a 10-day-old baby, recovering from a C-section. She was an immigrant and her closest family was an ocean away. Her husband’s family lived nearby but had a troubled relationship with them. She relied on her husband’s meager income as a line cook, but now has to figure out how to pay the rent, care for a baby, and heal herself. Nothing I could say would change any of these facts. There was no way I could make it all better with a few words.
I texted back my sympathies (at the risk or saying something cliche or stupid) to let her know I was here for her, then planned a visit for the next day. I brought some food, but still was not sure what to say. “How are you?” seemed like an invitation for instant tears; I knew how she would be and it was not good. Saying, “I know how you feel” or anything remotely close to it would be a lie; I know her situation can’t feel good, but I don’t know exactly how it feels.
I ended up not saying much on my visit. She had a lot to say and needed an ear to hear it. When she ran out of words, we just held hands and cried. It was frankly uncomfortable at times, but that is the price of mourning with those who mourn. I learned that some situations require words and some do not. I learned that my response may not fix the problem – and that is ok. Sometimes all I can do is acknowledge the pain, not alleviate it. I learned that vague offers of help (“Is there anything I can do for you?”) got vague answers (“I don’t know.”), and that more specific offers of help (“Can I hold the baby for an hour while you shower?” or “Can I bring dinner tonight?”) had much simpler answers (“Yes!”).
My friend has a long, difficult journey ahead of her. I will not always know what to say, but I will be there with her.