Fragile: Handle with Care

The woman suddenly cried.

In an intake of a breath, she shifted from smiling and looking a bit weary from work . . . to tears. The person beside her, older and probably her mother, was caught off guard. What do you do with an abruptly weeping thirty-something daughter?

The women had been passing in front of my hospice’s table display. Along with a colleague, I staffed the table—covered by brochures, info packets, resource samples, and some very popular mints for giving away—to answer questions about grief support services.

The sobbing woman stared at the section of the table devoted to our Angel Babies program.

My colleague leaned toward her and asked, quietly, gently, “How long ago?”

“Seven years.”

Seven years since the death of her child.


Let me, with humility and a dose of confidentiality, press the “remote” to pause these sentences.

Everything I’ve just described about these two women, their likely ages, their possible relationship, and the length of time since a baby’s death, is all fiction. Whenever I write about hospice, and about the real people we serve, I do everything possible to divert you, the reader, from the factual details of another’s hurting, vulnerable life.

Still, two things are true.

Someone stopped at our table and wept. Openly, unexpectedly.

The material on the table, those colorful brochures and dull hand-outs about future grief support groups, also included the Teddy bears given to families who’ve had a child die. And there were also the baby gowns—hand stitched by volunteers—that are given for the dying child to wear. Those gowns are made from donated wedding dresses. A group at a local church receives “old” wedding apparel and transforms them into precious gifts.

[The picture I’ve included above depicts one of the gowns. I’ve written about this work before: here. There are groups across the country, in towns large and small, that also create these gifts.]

And so, the tears.

My colleague, who works with families that have experienced a child’s dying and death, simply asked . . . how long?

Seven years.

Isn’t that a long, long time ago?

But, without warning, it could feel like yesterday.

A hundred or more folks strolled by our table during the next hour. All were there because they might (to be honest with my hospice’s intentions!) contribute money. I work in bereavement, which is Medicare “mandated” but minimally reimbursed. Every hospice, whether a non-profit like ours or the many for-profit hospices—is faced with endless funding pressures. Several of our key programs wouldn’t exist without the generosity of individuals and companies.

Money matters! After all, hospice is a business.

And not a business.

Hospice, the care for patients and families, the care of the griever, is also a tenderhearted calling.

And, every day, it’s humbling.

I witnessed several other women move by our display table, headed to where speeches would be given to promote giving, or departing after the presentations. These women veered closer to the table. Slowing, never stopping, they reached out to touch the baby gowns.

Just a brush, the palm of a hand stroking the gown’s soft material.

A finger tracing the silk surface.

They kept walking.

What happened in those split seconds of contact?

I don’t know. But I can guess.

We all bear invisible scars and wounds and losses and hurts and broken promises. Our dearest ones have died. Our beloved ones are no longer by our side. Our friends and lovers, who we’d have battled an army to keep alive another day or year, did die. Our siblings and parents, who we had one more thing to share with or say to them, did die. And all the next conversations died too. Our babies, innocent and precious and representing the purest dreams we could imagine, died.

On the outside, how calm we can appear! Collected. We can fake it every day, and in every way, that we are good to go. I’m strong. I’m a survivor. You can try to break me, but I’ll only bend.

You know the clichés. Tough we are.

Tough we aren’t.

Storms rage beneath the contours of our skin.

We grieve, never fully prepared for the moments when we’ll fall apart. Death does that to the living. Grief, forever clever, eagerly takes the stage for another encore.

A woman wept.

Seven years ago, her baby died. She is fine. She is a survivor. She is built with steel and grit.

But those tears flowed, unexpected and inevitable.

And those others, as they reached out, as they—tenderly, unobtrusively—caressed the gowns, they too are among the wounded.

I have learned this, and still need to learn it, that all are grievers. Shouldn’t everyone be labeled, Fragile—Handle with Care?

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. Touching, our daughter in law gave her wedding gown for this cause. They lost a baby a while back, yes, tears come at unexpected moments.

    My Mother, at 80 years old will sometimes cry, too. Her first born left too soon at 8 months.

    As I write this, thank you, I will share my wedding dress with a group here in Kansas.

  2. I am in awe of your ability to express/describe emotion so well with the written word. Thank you for sharing your hospice experiences with us and for being so honest about what you still have to learn.

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