Chrissy Teigen – courtesy of Instagram
It’s just over a year ago since our daughter died. Try that for a conversation killer. Truly, there’s nothing like it.
Since Aya died, it’s fair to say that I’ve been on quite a journey of the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. But whilst I’d never say I was glad this happened to me, I have met amazing people, learned a lot about myself, strengthened my marriage (80% of couples go on to divorce after losing a child, staggeringly) and truly surprised myself at my strength and ability to handle the unimaginable.
As we find ourselves in Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, by some uncanny timing, the haunting Instagram image of Chrissy Teigen dominated the online world as she and her husband, John Legend, broke the news of the loss of their son, Jack, on September 30. The black and white photo of Chrissy sitting on the edge of her hospital bed stopped me in my tracks. Not so long ago, I was that woman in the picture. And truthfully, it took me over a day to pluck up the courage to read her post as I wasn’t sure how I’d deal with her words. But I applaud them both with all my heart. This is the reality of infant loss. It’s horrendous and messy with no end date in sight, and we need to be open and honest and talk about it. As one of the world’s most high-profile couples, they have the platform to do this and in doing so, have already helped many more people than they will ever know. They helped me, even a year or so into my journey.
I don’t have millions of followers, but I do have something of a voice here in the region, so since Aya died, I have been on my own mission to get people talking about this and other tough topics. The reality is that as human beings we don’t like having difficult conversations, and we’re generally not very good at them. But like with most things, the more we embrace and talk about awful, uncomfortable things, the easier they become. And let’s face it, there’s no shortage of difficult topics to discuss these days because life can be really, really challenging. Death, infertility, debt, divorce, infidelity, mental health – the majority of us are going through something unpleasant, aside from the nightmare of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – so we need to get better at sharing and talking about the bad stuff as well as the good. Just think about the different kind of society we could create if we all talked more openly, not sugar-coating everything or glossing over it with an Instagram filter – right?
Chrissy and John sharing their darkest hour with us was no small thing, and we need to feel privileged that they did, letting us into what will likely remain one of the most horrific days of their lives. I shared my loss on my social media, then got into bed and didn’t get out for six weeks. I expect they’re probably hiding themselves away now too, with no more updates since they shared their news, as they try and come to terms with their loss.
When we don’t talk about tough topics, it can increase feelings of isolation, loneliness and distress. On the flip side, when we do talk about difficult things and face them head on, it opens up a space for connection, understanding and the chance to really make a difference in the world of that person. By sharing thoughts and feelings, and engaging in those conversations, we make those topics more socially acceptable, and help those struggling with them to feel less isolated.
16 months on from losing our daughter, here are my tips on how to help someone going through the unimaginable, how to talk about difficult things and in doing so, how to become a whole lot better at it.
Don’t avoid us!
I wanted to avoid myself at times, but I couldn’t. It’s so common that when people don’t know what to say that they avoid you. I witnessed this first hand, even from some of my nearest and dearest, and it hurt. It’s OK to be honest, and say you don’t know what to say, because at least then you’re showing that you’re there. I often said to anyone unsure of what to say to us that truthfully, I had no clue what to say either. You can’t avoid us, and generally, we’re likely to appreciate anything you say. The worst thing you can do is pretend like life is just going on as normal and nothing has happened. It’s like our child never existed. With grief and loss, we’re thinking about the very worst of things 24/7, so it’s not as if you’re bringing up anything we’ve not been thinking about anyway.
We like it when you help us remember the child or person we have lost
When we lose someone, they’re just gone. It all stops. There are no more photos, no new memories and life just goes on. So please, say their name. A year on, I love it when my friends call “Aya” by name – it matters, and it means she existed and has not been forgotten. Some of the nicest gifts I received after Aya died were an ‘Aya Star’ which is viewable from the UAE on her birthday, and a beautiful carving with her name on that we keep in our living room so she’s always there with us – we don’t forget, and we don’t want to forget either.
Avoid the thoughtless cliché
It’s a fine line, and we want you to talk to us, but try not to be patronizing and do avoid clichés. By far THE worst things people said that really triggered and upset me were, “Your child is in a better place” – I mean, I don’t know about you, but I think the best place for a child to be is with their family and not in a graveyard! And please don’t tell me “You’ll have another child soon,” or “It’s not your time”. Oh, and don’t ask us if we’re “Better now” either. That said, even if you do say something wrong, it’s better than not saying anything at all.
Don’t leave us out. We’re still here!
After we lost Aya, people stopped inviting us to things – baby showers, kid’s birthdays, and social events in general. People didn’t want to share their good news with us, and actively avoided my husband and I. Obviously, I understand people don’t want to upset you or “rub it in”, but we also craved just feeling normal again, and it’s nice to feel that you’re being included. And while yes, some things may sting a little, we love our friends and family and will only ever be glad for them. Help make us feel normal again.
There is no way of sugar-coating this. Life can be challenging. Death will happen to us all, and we’re all going to go through life-changing events. A lot of my advice and tips here are specific to child loss and bereavement and what I’ve learned personally along the way, but can equally apply to any challenging predicament we find ourselves in. If there is any situation that makes you want to run and avoid someone, chances are you can learn from my suggestions. The reality is that we’re all going to find ourselves in difficult situations, now more so than ever during COVID times where loss and stresses are literally everywhere, be it through critical illness, losing a job or suddenly having to leave the country. Ultimately, if we talk about the tough stuff more, even when we’re lost for words, it creates a new space for openness, honesty and understanding. From this space, not only can we have the best possible relationships with our friends and family, but we can also play a really important role in someone else’s healing – and how wonderful is it to be a part of that?
As we mark another Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Month, I send all my love to Chrissy and John, and to any of you that this awful thing has happened to. And I ask you to remember Aya Shawe, because she existed, even just for a little bit, and I like to say her name.
Based in Dubai, Natasha Hatherall is CEO & Founder of PR Agency, TishTash. Follow her @tashhatherall