you can imagine. let me help you.
As newly bereaved parents, we hear this all the time.
I can’t imagine what you’re going through.
I can’t imagine what you’re feeling.
I can’t imagine what this is like.
I can’t imagine.
I understand this sentiment completely. People want to be respectful of the terrible loss we have experienced. They don’t want to assume that they know how it feels. They want to tell us that they see the depth of our pain and they respect the tragedy we have experienced.
But as a writer who relies on imagination daily, I want to tell them – and you – that there is an important clarification to be made here.
You can imagine how we are feeling. What you mean is that you can only imagine.
(And that you may not want to imagine.)
The difference between these statements matters deeply.
. . .
The gift of imagination is one of the most powerful tools we have in our relationships. It is a fundamental part of what makes us human.
Our minds can move from the present here and now (with its limited sensory inputs) and from the past that we have known (with its limited personal experience or acquired knowledge) into an unknown elsewhere.
This imagined potentiality can be realistic or fantastical; it is unbounded by what we can grasp by our senses or draw from our past. It is the laboratory of creativity and the fertile ground of dreams.
It is also the birthplace of empathy.
Because if you want to imagine what it is like to lose a child? You can.
All you have to do is let your mind wander down that path, the very path you fear most. And when you reach the place of horror and terror, and every cell in your body screams out to recoil and run away and forget that this place could ever exist, ask yourself to stay there just one moment longer.
Now pretend that you have to wake up in this dreaded place every day. You have to go through the daily motions of your life while still in this place. You have to interact normally with other people while still in this place. You have to readjust every plan for your future while still in this place.
If you shudder or shake your head or say to yourself, “I just can’t,” then you have done it right.
You have imagined. You have joined us in this place.
I am not saying you should undergo such exercises for self-defeating purposes, purely to make yourself feel wretched or hopeless about the staggering burdens of existence. Imagination can be a dangerous tool, too. We have to care for our own mental health. If we imagined ourselves fully into every single tragedy we hear and every awful news story we read, we would be incapacitated. None of us would get out of bed in the morning.
When you say (and we have all said this; yours truly included) that I can’t imagine, you are not telling the full truth of your capacity.
We can indeed imagine. What we mean is that we don’t want to imagine.
And I sympathize with this honest fact. There are plenty of things I don’t want to imagine.
Imagination can lead us to dark and lonely places. It pulls us from the comfort of what we know and what we have constructed to keep ourselves safe. It asks us to wonder about how we would face hardships that we never want to enter into our lives. It forces us to remember that life could shatter in an instant and we could be forever scarred.
But imagination also strengthens our love for people in different places from our own lives. It deepens our gratitude for the good we have been given. It expands our sense of our own capacities and what we believe we could handle. It creates space for possibilities of how we could enter into what we have not yet experienced. And it opens our eyes to a fuller view of how God is working in our world.
Imagination makes us human. It lets us love each other.
“And how can we even begin to understand the grief of parents who have lost a child?” (Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia # 254)
This is how you begin. You can try to imagine.
Even though imagination cannot heal another’s wounds or allow you to enter fully into their suffering, it invites you to empathize.
You do not have to wrap your arms around the fullness of what someone is living through to be able to sit with them and love them well. You can say that you can only imagine; you can be honest that it’s hard to imagine; you can even admit to yourself that you don’t want to imagine.
But if you want to reach out to anyone in pain or confusion or difficulty, the best way to begin is by sitting with them, listening to their story, and imagining yourself into their shoes.
Because then you will be able to speak from your imagination, which has now been stretched. And then you will be able to reach out from your heart, which has now been humbled.
And then you will be able to stay by their side. Because your whole self – body, mind, and heart – will be stronger.
The truth is, rarely can a response make something better.
What makes something better is connection.
I’m having a hard time with this one. My experience has been the opposite. It has been the well meaning “I am imagining what you are going through” comments that have left me feeling more alone and misunderstood at times.
I much prefer it when I’m told, “This must be so hard. I can not begin to imagine what you are going through.” It acknowledges my pain, and it acknowledges the truth that it is a lonely place, a place that only God can truly enter in with me.
My take-away from this is that each person is unique, and each person’s experience of pain is unique.
We will likely “get it wrong” when we fumble our way into the messy way of love. But that is better than being so afraid to say the wrong thing that we say nothing at all. What matters is that we show up.
Because even those times when a well-meaning friend said “the wrong thing”, I still received the love.
I apologize if I used that phrase in any of my previous comments. I very well might have. If I did, I think I meant something slightly different than what you’re describing in this post, although consistent with “I can only imagine”. My “I can’t imagine” or “I can only imagine” basically means that I’m not confident that my imagination of what you’re going through begins to accurately capture what you’re feeling or what I would be feeling in your shoes. I’ve had my own share of loss, as I’ve mentioned before. I lost identical twins at 13 weeks gestation, and they had probably died at 10 or 11 weeks. I imagine that losing babies at a later stage of pregnancy would be much more painful than what I went through. If I had a choice, I still think I would choose to go through the pain in order to experience what it’s like to feel movement from the babies that I was carrying, and to be able to see and hold them before their death. But I could be totally off base; I just don’t know. I don’t even know for sure how I would feel, let alone how someone else would feel. That doesn’t mean I can’t empathize, and as I’ve mentioned before, I do feel a connection to you regarding this loss (my babies’ due date was February 27, the date your babies were born, and my first wedding anniverary was in a year when Easter fell on March 27th as it did this year). In any case, I apologize if any of my comments have added to your grief, and I will try to avoid this phrase in the future.
It’s always rubbed me the wrong way when people have said “I can’t imagine…” including after our miscarriage, but I never fully knew why it bothered me. You put it in words perfectly and gave me understanding for my emotions.
Praying for you.
Thank you! I was just talking about this with my husband. I know people mean well, but I will never say “I can’t imagine” to anyone again after hearing it frequently when we lost a baby. All I could hear was “your life is too nightmarish for me to even think about” when people said this to me.
You said it very well and very deeply: imagination is the birth of empathy… That’s so right! Thank you for saying it. But there is something that cannot be done through imagination: imagination doesn’t give us the grace, that only God gives when we are actually living it. So in a sense, imagining a situation can be harder than living it, because we don’t have the grace that accompanies us… When I know about a person that has lost a child, I shiver at the very thought of his or her suffering, and I cry for him or her. Then someone reminds me that I myself have undergone such loss… In a sense, it was easier then than it is when I imagine it for others. Because then I got the grace, God was there on the cross with me. As he is with you!
God bless you Laura!
Thank you for sharing this! I’ve had a post in my archive for months that I haven’t published yet! This very sentiment weighs very heavy on my heart sometimes. There are times when people have said it and feels so hurtful. I get it, I understand and like you said, I’ve said it before. But it feels like it puts a wedge in between the person who said in and myself. If you can’t imagine my pain, then that changes wherever our friendship was and where it goes from there. To me it feels like someone is saying, “I don’t want to even try to understand this part of you.” And when you lose your child, there are moments it takes up your whole existence, so it’s like saying, “I don’t want to know you.”
Again, thank you for sharing. Continuing to pray for you missing your little loves.
Hey Laura, I love when your emails pop into my inbox. I know I’m going to get the benefit of some sage mommy wisdom or a perspective I’ve never considered before, and this post is no exception. Thank you so much for pointing out the difference in this statement. I’ve said this very thing myself. So often, I just don’t know what to say when people are grieving, so this definitely helps. And I LOVE the Brene Brown video. Right after I watched that one it rolled into one on Blame. She is so funny. Thanks for sharing!
I hope there’s lots of sun and laughter in your life today, mommy. Thank you for sharing so genuinely.