As I reflect on the 13 years since my daughter passed away, I realize that I personally gained some amazing insights. While I might never be able to understand why she passed, I do finally recognize an important life lesson. How I got there though, was quite painful.
Early in my grieving, I chose to volunteer and support other parents who had children in the NICU. A moment that stands out to me occurred while speaking to a dad who was devastated that his full-term baby had to spend a few days in the NICU. The dad was sharing his story with me about how incredibly sad he was that he couldn't bring his baby home and how hard those few days were for him and his wife. During this father’s incredibly vulnerable moment, I checked out. I remember thinking, "You have got to be kidding me. You are devastated that your daughter has to spend a couple days in the NICU? That is nothing. My daughter is dead, and I will never get to take her home.” I nodded, maybe spoke to the man for another moment, then needed to get out of the hospital. You see, at that moment, I realized that I had no ability to comfort anyone, and I was in desperate need of support.
I think about that interaction often, for it was that moment where I realized that the grief someone is feeling, no matter how I view it, is real and painful to them. I had decided that this dad had no right to feel what he was feeling. How dare he talk to me about being sad that his daughter didn't get to come home right away! Didn't he understand that staying in the NICU for a few days was no big deal in comparison to what I had gone through? The reality was that for him, the event was truly devastating. It didn't have to live up to my level of grief to be valid.
Now, I frequently remind myself of the NICU interaction when I find myself being judgmental. I’ve learned to ask: “Am I expecting the person to live up to a standard that they don't know about and never agreed to live up to in the first place?” Because the life changing insight is this: I can't truly love, support, or empathize with someone if I feel like they must reach some "standard.” Learning to meet people where they are with no judgment and accept whatever they are feeling as their truth is an incredibly difficult skill to master, and it’s likely one that I will always have to practice. It’s also the exact thing that allows us to meet people where they are.
I challenge you readers to stop for just a few minutes today and ask – where am I expecting someone to live up to my standard? Where might I be judging someone unfairly? What do I need to grieve?