As you’ve likely heard, writer/actress/mental health advocate Carrie Fisher died two days ago. Like many people, I was terribly saddened to hear about her passing. I loved Fisher’s brilliant writing and thought she was a hilarious actress. She was only 60 years old.
Yesterday, her mother, actress Debbie Reynolds, passed away. At 84 years old, her death couldn’t be described as completely unexpected, but it is still very sad. As a child I watched Singing in the Rain countless times with my family, and I’ll never forget her sweet voice in Charlotte’s Web.
When the news of Reynold’s death began to spread, many media outlets reported that some of Reynolds’ last words were, “I miss her so much, I want to be with Carrie.” When I heard that, I braced myself because I just knew that social media was about to be inundated with variations of an expression bereaved parents absolutely despise: “If my child died, I would die, too.”
Sure enough, my Facebook feed soon filled with comments like,
“If one of my children died before me, my body wouldn’t be able to take it, either.”
“I would literally die of a broken heart, just like Debbie.”
“How can you not die when your daughter dies before you?”
People. Don’t say this stuff. First, it weirdly romanticizes losing a child into a twisted Romeo and Juliet situation. Second, it’s just so incredibly insulting to parents who have lost children. It immediately puts us on the defensive, as if the reason we ourselves haven’t died is because we didn’t love our children as much, or grieve for them enough.
Third, never presume you know how you would act in one of life’s most horrible circumstances — especially in front of a person who is actually living it. Over the last 7.5 years, I have had countless people say, “I wouldn’t know what to do if my child died. I would die. I don’t know how you survive.” I know this is meant to be a compliment on our strength, but it can feel like another attack on how we’re grieving. Believe me, for most bereaved parents, we aren’t strong, we’re just existing. But we live on, because our children do not. We live on FOR our children.
Bereaved parents often have to work through strong emotions of survivor’s guilt, so when we hear things from armchair grief quarterbacks about how they would grieve “harder” or “better,” it’s difficult to not feel wounded. But it’s okay to live when our children do not. It’s okay for us to find purpose and happiness again. So to those who think they wouldn’t be able to live without their children: you can, and you would. It would be unfathomably painful, but you would survive, just like we are. And that is not something to ever feel guilty about.
Leslie Young says:
Thinking of you. This has been a bad year.
I’ve never lost a child I had the opportunity to meet and hold, but I have had 3 miscarriages prior to a full term babies. My last miscarriage was probably multiples. As I was under the care of an RE and was told I had 4 excellent follicles and 2 more potential. Heather, you jnderstand the pain of a miscarriage as well as anyone. I’ve learned enough through my losses to know that I have no clue what others go through. And I know I can’t comment on what you are going through every day after losing Maddie or what Debbie Reynolds was going through. The only thing I know for certain about your grieving is that it sucks.
Much love and many hugs to you and your family Heather.
Thank you for this text, heather.
The life you live and the many multiple ways you remember your daughter is inspiring.
Thanks for saying this, Heather, and saying it boldly and eloquently. Sending love to you and your family.
This may be one of the most eloquent things you’ve written. Just beautiful.
Heather – I normally just accept how people grieve and what they say and I accept what people who have not experienced a death say in these kinds of circumstances because what they are saying is a normal reaction so I was not bothered by how people reacted to Debbie Reynold’s death the day after her daughter passed away.
My mother died of a massive heart attack at home in front of her three young children. I was the eldest and 16. I was the one who called my grandmother, her beloved mother, and told her, and it was beyond sad, it was just plain horrible. When you lose a child regardless of the age everything changes as you know and people get scared and say all kinds of things because it happened “backwards.” I just accept what people say because it comes from their panicked heart. Our love is so deep that we often cannot imagine living without the person who died.
Please know that I am not criticizing you. My family lived what happened to you. I saw my grandmother’s heartache that she could not help my mother, her first born. We all handle grief in different ways.
Hi Jackson. I just want to take a second to point out that Heather isn’t discussing what the bereaved say. She’s discussing what observers say. The people who haven’t lost a child but just watch and imagine it happening to them. I think she’s actually in the same camp of “Yes, people say all kinds of things when their child dies” and accepting that as it comes. I find her advice helpful as someone who hasn’t experienced this but encounter people who have… it’s helpful to know what to say or what might be offensive.
That is what I was saying. I cannot fault observers because they are speaking/questioning from a panicked heart. My family experienced that, in fact it was common because the world had gone topsy turvey with a child dying before a parent. My grandmother wished so hard that she could have been there for her first born. People could not imagine what it must be like for her and expressed their own fears in awkward ways. Debbie Reynold’s grief reawakened what occurred to my family 53 years ago. Everyone just reacts differently and I just let it be and understand what I believe are their fears awkwardly expressed.
Beautifully written, Heather. Our granddaughter died in May after 51 days in the NICU. We were crushed. But somehow, we have all begun to see that Valerie’s life, however short, should be celebrated. That it’s okay to have incredibly sad days, but that ultimately it is okay to continue to live. To make her memory one of joy and never forget her but never be stuck. Much love to you from Wisconsin. ????
Beautifully said, Heather.
So very well said, Heather!
Thank you for this. A poignant reminder and important to hear.
Stephanie B. says:
So well said.
On the 4th anniversary earlier this month, I read the incredibly poignant look back at the grieving parents who lost their children during the Sandy Hook massacre. It was six months later and you could feel the weight of their grief. But they kept on getting up each day, finding a way to pour their grief into action. Not everyone has to do that when faced with unimaginable loss, of course, but it was a good reminder that we keep on keeping on. That’s what humans do.
I’m so glad you posted this. When my husband’s best friend and his wife lost one of their twins in utero, I was pregnant with our first daughter, and I remember rubbing my belly and saying I don’t know what they will do, because I would just die if something happened to my baby. Two months to the day later, my baby was stillborn. I wanted to die for a while, but I didn’t. And while the grief never goes away, life does get beautiful and meaningful and even fun again. And my subsequent happiness doesn’t make me feel further from my first daughter. Being her mom, as much as I miss her, adds to the gratitude I feel for the good things in my life now.
And you’re so right that such comments are made with good intentions in an effort to describe the magnitude of losing a child, but they do make me feel upset or defensive. I’m not stronger or better equipped to handle grief than anyone else. And not dying of grief didn’t mean I wasn’t sad.
So good, Heather. So hard and so good. Thanks.
Thank you for your words. My brother died last year and even though we are adults in our early 40’s, watching my mom and dad grieve and love is probably the hardest thing I have ever done. Sibling grief is a horrible grief as well. I had never been in a world without him. It is ok to live-thank you
You put into words what so many grieving parents cannot. Grief is indeed personal, no two people will grieve alike, even if their loss is the same. Sending virtual hugs to all who have lost loved ones!
Honestly, the first thing I thought when I read that she said she missed Carrie and wanted to be with her was “what a slap in the face to the surviving son who is standing right there”. I totally understand the feeling, but do not say it out loud to your child who lived! They do not need to hear that they are not enough…..
You always eloquently write exactly what I’m thinking! Thank you!
Excellent read Heather, I feel that when you first enter grief you say things that you don’t mean. I don’t think that Debbie Reynolds really wanted to die, but I think that given all the stress she was under caused the stroke, and she was older, so it’s not shocking that she passed away due to the stroke. My step-mother unexpectedly passed away 2 weeks ago, her mother, who is 84, said that she wanted to die, that it should have been her. But she has now said that she can’t go yet, because she has siblings to help speed them to adulthood.
You wrote the post I haven’t been able to articulate. May I reblog it on my own site? Thanks and love to you.
You can post an excerpt and link back!
Appreciate this, Heather. Beautiful and insightful!
This was beautifully written and much needed. Every time someone said or wrote “At least she’s with her Carrie,” I would cringe. Thank you for speaking the truth with love! Love you!!!!
Beautifully and powerfully written, Heather.
I about fainted when I saw that you wrote this. I literally just got done speaking to my husband about this very same subject. Thank you for explaining it in a much more eloquent way than I ever could. I remember years ago, when I was in college, there was a group of girls standing around gossiping about another girls marital and custody problems. One girl made a comment about if the courts gave custody to the father they would have to take her out of the courtroom in cuffs, because in no way would she allow anyone to tell her who would get custody of her child. Of course the young mother was standing close by and had been devastated over the decision, and of course had done all she could…she was hurt by the stupid comment. It was written all over her face, as if she didn’t feel bad enough. I know this is not the same situation whatsoever,no comparison, but it had always stuck out in my mind to never say stupid crap in front of or to someone who is going through something. I always thought about this incident and thought of those who have lost children and how this type of comment would hurt them. My brother and his wife lost their premature son and I was amazed at the incredibly hurtful and ignorant things that were said to them. Thank you for being a voice Heather.
Feelings are feelings and they are real, regardless if anyone else thinks they’re weird or wrong.
Thank you for writing this. I lost my son last year and I have had to live through the past year hearing some well-meaning but yet ignorant comments from friends and family, and one of them is the “I don’t know how you do it; I couldn’t survive if my baby died; you are so strong….” Blah. I hate being told that. It’s right up there with the “God needed another angel” comment.
So very true… every word. I’ve also wondered if anyone considers how her son must feel hearing people speculate that his mother would rather be with her dead child than her living one. People just don’t think about what the words they say.
Debbie A-H says:
The other thing that really bothers me with all the “she couldn’t live without Carrie,” is that she also has a son. So her son wasn’t worthy enough to live for? It is so disrespectful to him.
Debbie A-H… minutes apart with the same comment. Great minds and all that!
Death. It has been a year. Especially when your spouse of 30 years passes away unexpectedly. i can only say that everything was right in our world when we went to bed and then it wasn’t right in my children’s world. I am not angry or bitter, but I have a broken heart that will heal. I was fortunate that we loved each other, and still had much magic in our in our marriage. Our journey took a turn from a new job in Glendora, CA to an unexpected goodbye. Many expected things had to be put away for another time…I am here and I can and will go forward. It’s the only thing I know how to do. It’s going to be scary because I am “it” now. My sidekick and back-up can only be felt in my heart and memory. I have been a stay at home mom for 25 years. Now, I must make my way to a different future at 52. I will be okay because I have my children, and my friends. And if I were to lose another, I would still be okay. Let me just say, too– that one does not know how one would persevere or shrivel until they get to that exact spot. When we had tough times, I would lament how I would never do it again…but I didn’t know. And now, I do know that if I were fortunate enough to find love again that I think differently.
Today marks two months. I keep waiting for the BR door to open and Martin to tumble out whistling and asking if I would like an egg. Music has always been a way for me to be happy…and this makes me happy–
Bastille’s Good Grief: Every minute of every hour, I miss you, I miss you, I miss you more…
Debbie A-H says:
I’m so sorry for your loss.
My brother took his life at 21.
I was talking to my Mom this morning and she mentioned Debbie Reynolds dying of a broken heart. It did not occur to me that she may be feeling guilt for not doing the same when she lost her son 35 years ago. Thanks for sharing.
Sending you so much love.
I never thought of this perspective. This was a great read – it’s always good to keep trying to understand how we can hurt others unintentionally.
Came to say the same thing–this aspect of the public reaction to their deaths did not register with me, and Heather as usual has articulated it beautifully.
This hit home that night after I had dinner with a friend who has lost her only two children, one as a baby and the other as a teenager.
You continue to educate us what to say to avoid wounding more. Thank you.
What’s more insulting is that Reynolds had survivors too. A son and a granddaughter, among others. It’s like saying that she had zero obligation to remain with those loved ones.
Many parents who lose children have remaining young children who are also grieving for their sibling, and feel an obligation to keep going out of their love for their remaining kids. To imply that losing a child is not to be survived imposes extra guilt on parents who tend to their remaining children by minimizing their public grief.
Reynolds had survivors too. A son and a granddaughter, among others. It’s like saying that she had zero obligation to remain with those loved ones. Many parents who lose children have remaining young children who are also grieving for their sibling, and feel an obligation to keep going out of their love for their remaining kids. To imply that losing a child is not to be survived imposes extra guilt on parents who tend to their remaining children by minimizing their public grief.
(1) Aneurysms are unpredictable events. It’s like saying you can have one at will if you have enough grief behind it. It just doesn’t work like that.
(2) Her son very openly mentioned that Reynolds had been in poor health prior to this, and a contributing factor to her collapse followed by an aneurysm. This makes it not unlikely that the timing of her daughter’s passing and her own are just a freaky coincidence (see #1)
I see what you’re saying, but I think that some people say they will die because they have seen it happen. When my cousin passed at 33 years old, my uncle took to the bed for almost two years before he died of a heart attack. Same with a friend’s mother. Neither of them would get out of bed and cried every day until their deaths. My aunt died of a broken heart a week after her husband died. My friend’s father committed suicide two years after his wife died. Nothing worked including anti depressants and therapy. People see things like that and panic, which is why they say that they would die if anything happened to their child. They say it out of fear that the same thing will happen to them. Not everyone is strong. Some really do die after they lose a loved one. It doesn’t mean that they loved more than you. It just means that everyone is different.
Love what you’ve written. So on point, as always, in every way.
Heather, thank you. Thank you for writing these types of posts amidst your grief.
2016 was a horrible year. A dear friend lost her child and it was unthinkably horrific but from years of reading your blog, I had some sense of how to help, what to say and what not to say.
I deeply appreciate you helping others walk this path themselves or walk it alongside their loved ones.
in this life nothing is guaranteed we hope and pray in the next life we can be reunited with our loved ones.
if anyone has lost a loved one and would like a custom t-shirt printed for them contact me i would loved to have pictures of all the loved ones who passed away and post it on facebook for awareness to be reminded how short we live and we still fight with our loved ones sometime.
So well said Heather!
I admire and respect you. I believe that you should grieve however you need to grieve. And actually, I don’t really care *how* you grieve. (You or anyone.) I sympathize when someone is grieving, but however they do so isn’t really any of my business, you know?
BUT isn’t the reverse true? Do I have to justify my feelings to you? Just the *idea* of something happening to one of my children terrifies me. Just imagining it can move me to tears. And I say this as someone who (knock wood) hasn’t even had a reason to worry — no health concerns, no close-calls, nothing. But that doesn’t make my fear go away. It still terrifies me. Am I not allowed to have my own feelings about my own fears? Why must I temper my feelings to accommodate yours? I *feel* like I would die if my child died. I would never tell you how to grieve; shouldn’t you not tell me how to feel/fear? Why does the way I feel about my life affect you and yours?
I reread to make sure this sounds philosophical and not abrasive, so I hope it comes across in the spirit it is intended — just offering a perspective from the flip side. I haven’t lost a child, but the fear I feel is still real.
I’m not telling you how to feel. I’m just saying that expressing thoughts like this can be hurtful to those who have actually lived through the experience.
“Why must I temper my feelings to accommodate yours?” Because in the aforementioned situation, where we assume you’re speaking directly with the person who has had the loss, you should want to know if your words are hurtful and/or obtuse. So that’s why.
Heather, thank you so much for the reminder and this post. After Jake died I said many times that if another child of mine predeceases me I want to be buried with them. When another child (Sawyer) did predecease me I realized I could not die with him. The guilt of being alive does creep into most of my days. Your words really do help.
Sending hope and hugs. xo