If you follow many parenting blogs, you may have read a piece recently on The Progressive Parent, Julie, and the loss of her son, Patrick (PatPat).  PatPat was born December 2011, and left this earth on February 8, 2013.  As Julie describes it:

There was nothing, nothing, nothing wrong with Patrick. He just went to sleep and never woke up. His full autopsy showed no organ failure, disease or damage. His brain was fine. He did not suffocate, he was not poisoned, he was not ever vaccinated, nor did he die from any disease preventable by vaccines. His little heart was so strong that its valves are being donated to save the lives of two other children, his age or younger. We also donated his corneas, to give the gift of sight (or vast improvement of sight) to one or two children his age or younger, as well.

The “diagnosis” for Patrick’s passing was “Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood,” which is defined as:

… the sudden and unexpected death of a child over the age of 12 months, which remains unexplained after a thorough case investigation is conducted.” (Krous et al. 2005)

In the wake of PatPat’s passing, Julie has grieved rather openly on social media outlets and through her blog.  Her pain is palpable and much of what she has written is excruciating.  And much of what she has written will go down as some of the most beautiful language I have ever read surrounding motherhood.

Evidently, upon hearing of PatPat’s death, some people took to Julie’s blog and responded to her on other social media outlets with suggestions that somehow she was to blame for her child’s death.  These posts prompted Tracy from Evolutionary Parenting to write a piece called “Shame, shame, shame” wherein she remarked on these folks:

Until they were banned, people suggested that Julie’s actions of co-sleeping killed her child on her page.  On a place where she should be able to go and feel supported and loved.  Others questioned if she vaccinated and implied that if she did, perhaps that killed her child.  (All totally false, for the record, if you knew the facts.)

Tracy’s piece is fierce and evoked strong emotions in me.  It also got me thinking about something I’ve noticed in the wake of terrible tragedy.

Let’s be clear: what Julie has faced is without argument one of the worst possible experiences a human being can endure.  One minute, she has a healthy, happy nursling who has just learned to walk.  She put him down for a nap, and the next time she saw him, he was unresponsive and ultimately couldn’t be revived.  As her words above point out, there is no ostensible reason why PatPat died.  His death was sudden and unexplained.

It’s the fear all parents have, deep in their hearts or minds, isn’t it?

And because what Julie experienced is so raw, so ugly, and so awful, I think people have a tendency to want to distance themselves from it.  They want a “reason” it happened, because if they can say, “Well, Julie did X and her son died.  I don’t do X, so I am safe.  That can’t happen to me.”

I’ve seen it before in other situations.  “Well, he smoked, so it’s no wonder he got lung cancer.”  Or, “Was he drinking?” after a car accident.  It’s what we go to first – we seek some way to make the awful thing that happened something foreign, impossible, or someone’s fault.

Which all reminds me of Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, in his seminal work I and Thou.  It’s a complicated piece, but my takeaway from it is pretty simple.  We can experience the world around us in an “I” / “It” sort of way, where we objectify the other person, make them an “other” and distance ourselves from them.  Or, we can engage and relate to others in our lives in an “I” / “Thou” sort of way, where we are each a subject in relationship to one another.

I think we have a tendency, a need maybe, to approach Julie’s loss in an “I” / “It” way – if we can objectify and define what happened then we stay apart from it.  It remains “other.”  But the thing is, while the details surrounding PatPat’s passing are unique to Julie, grief and loss are not.  They are universal to the human experience.

If, instead of trying to determine “what really happened” to Patrick, those internet “trolls” had opened themselves up to the universality of her pain and loss, I don’t think they could have written what they wrote.  (Which, incidentally, I did not personally witness.  Nor do I care to read them personally.  I rely on Tracy’s post for details.)

Admittedly, living in an “I” / “Thou” relationship with others through their grief and loss is painful.  When we don’t distance ourselves from horrific tragedy, we feel things and think things that are challenging and difficult.  It hurts to admit that we too will suffer horrible grief and loss throughout our lives.  And, to be truthful, I’m not even sure it’s entirely possible to live in the “I” / “Thou” way fully.  But, it does seem to me that the alternative – our need to distance and objectify – causes more pain and suffering in an already unbearable situation.

What do you think?  I am particularly interested in hearing from those of you who have experienced illness, loss, or profound grief in your family or among your circle of friends.  Did you find that some people seemed to need to “distance” themselves from your experience?  To what do you attribute that?  

I’ve shared my thoughts, and now I would love to hear yours.

(As a final note, I just wanted to add that my thoughts are with Julie and her family as they face their grief.  She parented PatPat very openly through her blog, and now she grieves him openly there as well.  She remains in my mind and in my heart.)

What is lost is already behind the locked doors.

The fear is for what is still to be lost.

Joan Didion, Blue Nights

2 Responses to “The Caregiver Series : I and Thou”

  1. on 04 Mar 2013 at 6:55 pmSusan

    Kristine,
    Very interesting post and I too am so profoundly touched by Julie’s loss of her son. I cannot even imagine the pain she has gone through as I have always thought that losing a child would be the worst thing imaginable. My prayers are with her and her family.
    What I didn’t realize until your post, Kristine, was that I did have friends who totally “checked out” while I was dealing with the two years of dementia and death of my dad. Some people rose to the occasion and were of immense help to me and my family and others just kind of disappeared. Since I now have some distance from that, I see that those friends who could not be there for me were just not emotionally able to handle what I was going through. They may have been through it themselves and just could not re-live it or they may fear a similar thing might happen to them and they just don’t want to face the reality of my situation. The thing that has comforted me is that the Lord knew all that I needed and provided it on a timely basis. I see His hand at work as I look back even though there were some really hard days and weeks. I have learned that we are all in this life together and we can help each other through the worst of times just like we can celebrate with each other in the best of times. The older I get the more I realize that relationships trump everything……..beginning with your family and then closely followed by your friends. May we all be wise enough to know when to reach out a helping hand, when to pray and to always count our blessings.

  2. […] hope that The Caregiver Series : I and Thou resonated with some of you.  Just after I wrote it, I heard Krista Tippett interview Zen abbott […]

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