I Can't Imagine

Mother's Day is this weekend, and it has me thinking about a number of different women in my life-- none of whom are likely to have an easy time with the holiday this year.

A college friend lost her mother suddenly in January.

A really wonderful blogger lost her son a year and a half ago.

My favorite girlfriend's mother lost her husband last fall.

Another college girlfriend lost her mother back when we were in school, and still grieves.

My husband struggles with the mothers in his life.

I love my mother, and am trying to live with some extraordinarily difficult things in our relationship.

Another blogger struggles with her relationship with her son, which is nothing like what she expected.

A friend from a former congregation still grieves not being able to have children.

Another friend has shared about her experience with the "mommy wars," and how hurtful women can be to one another about their mothering choices.

One of my oldest friends isn't in contact with her mother, after years of emotional abuse. She struggles with that absence, and also with the hostility with which people react to her estrangement.

This is not an easy holiday, and it reminds me of something one of my favorite bloggers writes about. She hates when she shares about her family's tragedy, and someone says, "Oh, I can't imagine what that's like for you." For the longest time, I couldn't understand why this was so upsetting to her. After all, I don't want to presume that I do know what she's feeling! And, because I respect her so much, I sat with the idea during my quiet time one day. Praying with it was like having a dam burst open-- I felt like the words delivered a huge wave of isolation, condescension, pity. "I can't imagine" suddenly struck me as code for "that sort of thing couldn't exist in my reality, it doesn't happen to people like me." I've had some experience with that. There are wounds in my own family that carry stigma, and people don't want to be able to relate, they don't want to imagine that the grime and the pain could touch them.

On this Mother's Day Eve, I'm holding all these people listed (and more) in God's light. It's a weekend of deep and ongoing prayer for me. There is a great need for tenderness and nurturing right now. Will you join me in my vigil?


  1. Love and prayers to you on this challenging day....Grateful to hold one another in compassion for the deep and unexpected struggles of mothering from both sides.

    That breakthrough sounds really powerful for you. To complicate things, though, I don't at all agree that I can't imagine always means I don't want to/I don't have enough compassion. (I am sure it sometimes can, of course, and certainly accept that it can feel that way).

    I understand and respect R. and others when they hate "I can't imagine," which is why I will now be very careful with it. But in my other mother trauma, the death of my firstborn as a toddler, I found it profoundly honoring and was very grateful every time it was said to me. It said 1) the tragedy was unbelievably horrible and (as you mentioned in your previous reflections on it) 2) they wouldn't presume to name my experience. It was a huge relief because other people constantly denied 1 by saying it wasn't that bad (God's will, she's in heaven, good came out of it, you can help others) and 2 by naming my experience (telling me how I must feel, what my grief process should and would look like, how I should deal with it, etc., etc.)

    In fact, though thank God/dess no one ever said this, if anyone said they could imagine what this or any other serious trauma was like for me I would be as hurt and furious as R. and others are when they hear someone can't imagine it. And I suspect at least some others would be like me. No one but God/dess and I can imagine with any accuracy what it is like for me, because they're not me, and they don't know the sacred depths of my soul, and to me it is a huge and very hurtful presumption to dare to claim they can. They can only imagine what it would be like for them, which is a completely different thing, and nothing I care to hear about when I am the one in agony. Of course I did, frequently, in another very backhanded hurtful response. "I could never handle that, you're so strong, I don't know how you do it, I'd be in the mental hospital," etc. etc. Which feels like "I really love my child, so much I would be nonfunctional if they died in fact, so since you're not you obviously don't love yours as much."

    Another particularly cruel form of experience-naming, which I heard repeatedly and still do, is "you'll never get over it." I always want to say: Does it have to be a life sentence of horrendous agony? Can't I be happy in twenty years? (It's probably meant to honor the depth of the tragedy; a more respectful and accurate version would be something like "I believe something like that changes you forever"). "You'll never get over it" is saying that I will be in horrendous agony and unable to have a happy life forever....Which in turn is saying that God/dess won't bring resurrection in my life, that they and others don't care enough to try to help it happen, and that I can't do anything to help it happen either. And now, eighteen years after the tragedy when my husband and I are very happy, though we will always wish it could have been different, our experience proves they are wrong. I sometimes say so nicely but it's always scary because of the risk of their then deciding I didn't love her that much after all, as in the above "I could never function" stuff.

    Heavens, I ran on--thanks so much for listening. Everyone is so different that I am starting to think that the only helpful things to say are 1) I am so sorry to hear that 2) It must be horrible 3) I would love to hear about him/her and 4) I will pray for you (if the person is religious and would welcome that).

  2. PS My husband just came in the room and endorses everything above 100 percent.

  3. Thank you for this, Diana.

    I know Sophia and I disagree on this one. So be it.

  4. I wouldn't say so much that we disagree, Robin, as that our feelings and experiences--about which neither of us can be wrong--are very different.

    I accept and honor that you and some others find I can't imagine and its variants to be one of the most hurtful things you have heard in your grief; that one of the things you would find most helpful is a compassionate and courageous attempt to imagine your experience as one way of understanding it; and thus (I would guess--please tell me if I am wrong ) that you would thus find I can imagine and its variants a very helpful response. I have tried to be very careful to affirm this before sharing my own very different experience in each comment, and I am truly sorry if I have done that ineffectively and left you feeling discounted.

    I hope that you accept and honor that my husband and I have found I can't imagine one of the most helpful things we have heard in our grief; that we find I can imagine and its variants the most hurtful; that we too deeply long for our experience to be understood but expect this to happen primarily, and near exclusively, by asking us about it.

    I do think people should try to imagine the pain of others and am occasionally frustrated when they don't seem to be trying at all (a recent example being the commenter on my Mother's Day post who thinks trying to avoid traumatizing infertile or bereaved mothers on that day is silly). But I am very afraid of being hurt again by people putting too much confidence in their ability to imagine our experience and stating that to us. This is one of the reasons I have always spoken up when this issue has arisen, trying very hard not to hurt you in the process and perhaps failing. I am truly glad that people honor your experience and that of others who share it, and learn from that experience how to better support you. But I would be sorry if they concluded it was the only possible one, and interacted with me and others who share my experience on that basis.

    I was sorry to hear of the pain the statement has brought you but also grateful to hear your sharing and experience on this issue. I care about you and it helps me understand and empathize with you personally, as well as know (please God/dess) a bit more about how to speak to you supportively and not unintentionally-but-really-hurtfully. And since I never, well, imagined that any bereaved parent could feel so differently from my husband and me it also helps me understand that I should be very careful repeating something I have always found helpful, because it may be the opposite to others in my situation. Hence my closing comment that, at least upon first hearing such terrible news and not knowing which camp a bereaved parent (or other seriously traumatized person) falls into, that the safest response might be to avoid both I can't imagine and I can imagine.

    The main thing I would see us as disagreeing on is whether people who say I can't imagine always, or just sometimes, mean they don't want to and lack the courage and compassion to even make the attempt.

    Okay, thanks for listening and thanks so much to Di for also listening as well as making a space for this important issue to be addressed and being patient with my lengthy comments. I would be happy to discuss this more off blog, Robin, if you would find it helpful. I would like to know if I have understood you correctly and especially if I have hurt you in any and need to clean that up. (I thought about taking these comments off blog initially, since they are primarily directed to Robin as well as long, and sincerely hope that doing it here wasn't frustrating to either of you....I responded here because my feelings on the issue were brought up here by name, and also because I thought it might be useful/interesting to Di and others who have been discussing this issue).


"So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was."
-Saint Molly Ivins