The NICU is full of suffering. There’s really no use sugar-coating it. A baby is suffering, and a mother is suffering, and a father is suffering, each in their own way.
Sure, we all try hard to find the positive and make the best of it. In fact, I spend most of my time - as a bedside nurse as well as a writer here - trying to soften the pain and find the positives in the experience. It’s good to look at the bright side.
But in truth, I find it refreshing - and so do most parents - to be honest and accepting of the undeniable pain that is present. For some families the pain is profound and unbearable, with the life of their baby gravely in danger. For others, the NICU is a very mild pain, a few days or weeks of separation but without real fear of death or disability. Yet for all of these families, there is suffering. It’s the dark side of the NICU, and it’s very real.
Parents greatly appreciate the opportunity to talk openly about their grief and their anger. They all too often feel as though they need to “be strong” and “put on a good face” in order to prove to themselves and the world that they’re "handling this okay." But it actually adds to their suffering. It’s a burden they have to carry in addition to the pain of the NICU itself.
If you are the friend or loved one who is supporting a NICU parent through this difficult journey, I have a suggestion for you. It may seem unconventional, but hear me out. What I want you to do? Invite them to vent with you, invite them to rage with you. Allow me to explain:
Just the other night, a dear and very wise friend was talking with a group of us about parenting. One mother was talking about just how hard it is to handle her teenager’s anger.
My dear friend said: “Do you know what I do? I just say (and then her voice shifted to a voice that matches that of an angry teenager’s) 'You want to rage? Do you need to vent and yell and rage at the world? Great! That’s OK! I will rage with you! Do you need to break a glass, smash it on the wall? Great, I’ll smash one with you!'”
And the great thing is - she meant it. She really could be there, in support of this suffering angry teenager, without judgement, without trying to stop her from feeling. My friend could vent and rage with her teenage daughter and listen to the pain. Most importantly, she could give this young woman the freedom to express her emotions and the respect to honor whatever true feelings she had.
Not everyone is comfortable with anger and rage, and not every NICU parent has that much rage built up (I mean, really - who can compete with a teenager on this one?). I know I’m not very comfortable with anger myself, although I’m trying to grow in this capacity. I may not offer to smash glasses or use the term “rage” with someone, but I certainly can be unafraid to ask a NICU parent about their pain, and then concentrate just on listening. It’s incredible for them to know they can relax, be real, and talk about it., To know for this moment they can quit “holding it together” and “putting on a good face” and they can just be messy and still be loved and accepted.
Help your loved one vent about their NICU experience
So, if you feel you can do this for your loved one, prepare yourself to listen. And then just very simply, say something like “This must be really hard - how are you really feeling about all this?” Look them in the eye, and commit to just listening.
Here are a few suggestions for those of you who’d like to try listening to your friend's suffering but who feel unsure how to do this well:
- Offer to let them vent when there is some privacy, so they can really feel safe being open.
- Try to sit near your loved one, so you can offer a hug or a hand on their shoulder or some kind of caring touch if it seems right.
- Keep your comments brief, encouraging them to do most of the talking.
- Ask simple questions like “what was that like?” or “how did that feel?” to keep the conversation going.
- Tell your loved one that it’s ok to cry. Many people really need that permission to let it all out.
- Do be honest. If it’s hard for you to know what to say, say so. If it’s hard to see your loved one suffering, say so. They will appreciate your honesty.
- If you think of it ahead of time, do have some tissues handy.
- Don’t turn this into an opportunity to share your story. That can happen some other time, but this time right now is about letting THEM voice their feelings and be heard.
- Don’t try to diminish their feelings (“It’s not so bad,” “It could be worse,” etc.) Let them VENT, let them be irrational if they are. Just let them be.
- Don’t offer unsolicited advice (“What you should do is…,” “You’ve got to….”) If you are asked for your opinion, share it. But nothing can spoil a good venting faster than trying to “fix” the problem.
- Don’t say “I know how you feel” because, of course, you really can’t know, and it feels insulting most of the time.
Bottom line - invite them to talk, to share their raw, painful feelings, and then listen with compassion. It may be uncomfortable, but just try to sit with them and bear witness to their story. They may sound irrational, outrageous, hysterical, depressed… but unless there is any sign of real danger, just let them let it all out.
Not everyone can do this, I know. That’s ok, there are so many other ways you can be helpful. But I believe that if more people knew just how appreciated it is to let NICU parents be honest and messy and scared and raw about their suffering, they would be willing to give it a try.
If you can, you’ll be helping them heal and helping them feel appreciated, accepted and loved. What a great gift to give someone, right?
What was your experience - as a parent or a supporter - with venting about your NICU emotions?
FYI - Soon, I’ll be reviewing one of my favorite books When Thing Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. I’ll link to the review here when it’s available, but for now, know that this is a good suggestion for a Buddhist approach to difficult times, and I’ve found it to be very inspiring. Makes a good read for a NICU parent, or for the person wanting to support them.