When my oldest daughter was a year old, she had her second anaphylactic reaction. After several hours of observation and doses of epinephrine, we were cleared to go home. Getting home posed a problem for me, though. An ambulance had taken us to the hospital and the only car service in the city that had car seats was not readily available. My husband was working several floors above us in the ICU where he was trying to keep several patients alive. Our parents and siblings were all at least four hours away and our friends and cousins were at work.
I decided that the best way for us to get home would be to take the subway that stopped across the street from the hospital. This was a reasonably good option with one critical flaw: my daughter’s reaction had involved vomiting and we didn’t have any clothes to change into. I wiped off as much vomit as possible and braved the subway. After all, it was well past rush hour, so I assumed that the train would be pretty empty.
Unfortunately for us, and for everyone around us, the train was not empty. In fact, there was only one seat available and that was sandwiched between two men in suits. Cradling my exhausted child in my arms, I wiggled in between these men, presumably spreading the smell of vomit throughout the train car as I did so. Not surprisingly, the stares we got on that short train ride were not friendly. In fact, it seemed that the one thing on everyone’s mind was: what is she thinking, bringing that sick kid onto the train? Everyone, except for me, that is. All I could think about was how I was going to get my terrified, wiped out and drugged up one year old to walk a mile home from the train stop without a stroller.
I learned that day that our judgments about people and their actions can be completely off base. I am sure that, had the people on that train known the real backstory behind our train ride, they would have been incredibly kind and helpful. However, they did not know the true story. Instead, they knew that a stomach bug was the most likely reason for a vomit-covered mother and child to get on the train at a hospital stop and, as a result, they glared and stared. I would have done the same if the roles had been reversed. It made me think about how often my own assumptions about others are wrong.
Unfortunately, the lesson that I learned that day doesn’t necessarily translate into changes in my thoughts and behaviors. I am often guilty of jumping to conclusions about those around me without having all of the information. In fact, since the death of my youngest daughter, I have found that I am constantly judging others. Sometimes, when I see mothers surrounded by several children, I conclude that they have the family life that I wanted, even though several of these mothers have later told me that they have also lost children. Other times, I judge other mothers who have lost children thinking, “at least they got to know their child,” or “their loss was so early that it must not have been as painful as mine.” What heartless nonsense! I became acutely aware of these nasty judgments while I was reading a news article about Debbie Reynolds’ death the day after her daughter’s death. The article was discussing the possibility that Reynolds died as a result of her grief and, sadly, instead of feeling compassion for another bereaved mom, my first thoughts were about how weak she must have been to not survive her loss. How horribly disgusting is that?
The thing is, though, I suspect that I am not the only one who finds themselves making more judgments about others after the loss of a child. In fact, I have heard many grieving mothers talk about feeling guilty about the conclusions that they jump to. I have also been the recipient of a bereaved mother’s judgment when she responded to my concerns about my daughter’s life-threatening food allergies by saying that they are a minor issue compared to the loss of her own child.
The sad truth is that grief-stricken moms are often very different from the gentle, broken woman that we see in images of the Virgin Mary at the foot of Jesus’ cross. Instead, we make rapid and harsh judgments and these judgments are often terribly wrong. I understand that we are hurting and that there are few things we can imagine that could hurt us more than we are already hurt. Still, we have to remember that others are hurting, too, even if their hurt is different from our own. Other people have backstories that we don’t know, stories that would change the way we viewed them. We need to be open to those stories and to the pain they entail.
Grieving the loss of a child leaves us with a choice: do we allow our pain to make us more compassionate or do we let it lock us up in a tower of self-pity and self-righteousness? Do we let God comfort us so that we can share His comfort with others, or do we wallow in our own suffering? 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 says “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” Let’s be comforters and not judges. Let’s show His love and not disdain. Let’s use our suffering for growth and not get stuck in the mire of self-righteous sorrow. He has been so good to us, so kind, so loving. Let’s share His goodness, kindness and love with our hurting brothers and sisters and leave our judgments behind.