one of my least favorite people in my social circle is a woman who is overly-empathic. at least i have been encouraged by others to think that’s what’s going on. for me, though, the effect of her constant insistence that she knows what you’re going through, that she’s been there too (and so, by implication, before you), that she understands just what you mean…is belittling (not to mention just plain old annoying) rather than comforting or unifying. but perhaps i myself am not sympathetic enough.

at any rate, i have long assumed her words are intentional — that she knows what she’s doing when she’s being condescending trying to make people feel comfortable. mac, as usual, has a softer take: that she is insecure and has no idea that her actions have any kind of negative effects. now i, too, am developing a softer take on this phenomenon, since i encounter it so often as a dbm.

in this regard, the toughest person for me to cope with is my mil. she is a good-hearted woman, and i am lucky that, for example, she is a much easier person to manage than is my own mother. more than anything, i believe my mil wants things to look right, and underneath that, to actually be right. and bless her heart, part of the way she tries to create that appearance of rightness is by telling others that she knows exactly what they’re going through.

it is probably not surprising to hear that the hair on the back of my neck raises each time she does this. (you know those dogs you see who, when they see another dog who threatens them, raise their ruff and get all stiff-legged and let out tough-sounding-but-maybe-a-little-bit-scared yelps? that’s me.) recently mac tried to explain to her some of the ways he is struggling as a parent of living children while trying to grieve his dead children. i (stupidly) chimed in: “i think it’s harder for us in some ways because we’re trying to cope with so much, so much that a lot of other people don’t have to cope with.” “well,” she answered, “parenting young kids is so hard. it’s hard for everyone.”  mac and i sat in silence. the football game droned on. bitsy ran around asking everyone to put a little something in her bag. eventually  the awkwardness passed and conversation shifted. and then later, out of the blue, she said “you know, scribblette, all new parents find this difficult.”

“yes,” i said, ruff up. “but we’re also trying to grieve dead babies. and not all parents have to do that.”

later mac and i discussed this exchange, and his tendency to shut down when his mother gets this way, and my tendency to yelp retort. not my best moments, to be sure. then again, surely not my worst.

this exchange has taken me back to that terrible place i lived after we lost effie: facing the daily realization that relatively few parents were parents like me — parents to only a dead child, facing the real possibility of never being parents to a living child — and getting absolutely livid (not to mention unbearably sad) when women would say to me “oh, i know what you’re going through. i had a miscarriage too.” parents who have not held a dead child in their arms simply do not know what we have experienced. hell, i don’t even know, exactly, what other deadbabymommas have experienced. i just know my own version of raw grief. and i know something of mac’s. and that’s it.

which brings me to a terrible place where i live today.  i have a number of friends in the computer to whom i want to send sympathetic words. and yet because i am still stinging from my mil’s attempts to empathize, i am afraid to empathize with my friends. what can i say, really, that will matter? what can i say that will help? what can i say, i ask myself, that i would have wanted to hear?

i remember the feeling that nothing anybody did or said helped. how much i needed to find my own way, and how i needed the space to get there, and how i also needed support while i headed out alone into my own little gray world of sadness. i hate knowing that people i care about are there in their own gray places and that i can’t help. and i hate worrying that i’ll say the wrong thing, when in fact there is no right thing to say.