It’s been over two years since our daughter, Aya, died. Try that for a conversation killer. Truly, there’s nothing like it.
Since she 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 (a staggering 80% of couples go on to divorce after losing a child), and truly surprised myself at my strength and ability to handle the unimaginable.
As Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month kicked off at the start of October, Chrissy Teigen took to Instagram to share images of a memorial ceremony held for her late son Jack, saying that she hopes for “some closure in my heart”. It was on September 30, 2020 when she and her husband John Legend dominated the online world as they announced their pregnancy loss. 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 and 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 issues – 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 social media, then got into bed and didn’t get out for six weeks. 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 such topics more socially acceptable and help those struggling with them to feel less isolated. 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, they avoid you. I witnessed this firsthand, even from some of my nearest and dearest, and it hurt. It’s okay 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
When we lose someone, they’re just gone. It all stops. There are no more photos nor new memories, and life just goes on, so please say their name. Today, 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 of her name 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 Clichés
It’s a fine line, and we want you to talk to us, but try not to be patronising 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 – not in a graveyard! And please don’t say, “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
After we lost Aya, people stopped inviting us to things – baby showers, kids’ birthdays, and social events in general. People didn’t want to share their good news with us, and actively avoided me and my husband. Obviously, I understand people don’t want to upset you or ‘rub it in’, but we also craved just feeling normal again. It’s also 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 be happy 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 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 than ever, when stressors seem to be everywhere.
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 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 and 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.
Natasha Hatherall is the CEO and Founder of PR Agency, TishTash. Follow her @tashhatherall on Instagram.