Local 'vilomah' shares her perspective on talking to bereaved parents
Posted July 19, 2020 9:12 p.m. EDT
As a former news anchor and local lifestyle show host, Sharon Delaney McCloud is an impressive professional and public speaker who’s great at thinking on her toes. Yet, there’s one question that stumps her every time – and it’s one that is so simple for most of us moms to answer without a second thought.
“How many children do you have?” is the dreaded query that leaves Sharon trying to decide whether to be honest or to have a potentially really uncomfortable conversation. The sensitive topic of losing a child is what recently led Sharon to giving a very compelling and thought-provoking TEDx talk at the SAS Campus in Cary.
Go Ask Mom: For those of us who haven’t listened to your TEDx talk, give us a quick summary.
Sharon Delaney McCloud: In short, my talk is about how and why you should talk to bereaved parents. I lost my sweet daughter to leukemia as an infant back in 2005. For years after losing my Macie, I found myself so lost because I wanted so badly to talk about her, acknowledge the life she’d lived, and what a significant part of my life she had been and still was. Yet, I quickly learned that 90% of people I told about my experience losing a child were clearly horrified and didn’t know what to say. And it’s not anyone’s fault, really – we just don’t deal well with death and grief in this country. Everyone’s trying to escape aging, and unlike many other cultures throughout the world, we’re not well-equipped to address the difficult topic of death. My talk aims to give every other parent who has lost a child a voice by encouraging us to be more open about it with one another.
GAM: So, what’s a vilomah?
SDM: We stumbled upon the word ‘vilomah’ while Googling as I was preparing the concept for this TEDx talk. I had been confused as to why there was a word for those whose spouses have died (widow), as well as a child whose parents have died (orphan), yet I was unaware of any single word for a parent whose child has died. Vilomah is an ancient Sanskrit word that means ‘against a natural order’ and was discovered more than 10 years ago by Duke University professor Karla FC Holloway as a way to describe a parent who has lost a child. What could be more against the natural order than a child preceding their parent in death? This word gives us a name and a voice.
GAM: What’s it like preparing for and delivering a TEDx talk?
SDM: It is INTENSE. I had learned at a previous workshop for professional speakers that TED talks were rarely delivered by professional speakers. That’s because TED talks are not about the speaker, but about the idea. The TED process prepares people who have absolutely no professional speaking experience to deliver incredibly powerful talks.
From the application process to the day of the live talk, it’s hours and hours and weeks and weeks of preparation. They pair you with a professional coach to help you write and refine your speech – I think I went through at least ten rewrites. I practiced with my coach using Zoom and we rehearsed with a live audience for weeks in advance. From there, 16 of us delivered our live talk at the SAS campus, who graciously hosted the all-day, ticketed event. All speakers were required to deliver their talks with no notes, no teleprompter – everything was internalized. From there, our talks were fully-edited and produced – and were then sent up to the “big TED” for evaluation. Each talk is carefully reviewed to ensure it meets the TED standards before it can be published as a TEDx talk, and some don’t ever make it. Thankfully, all 16 of us got the TED stamp of approval for our presentations. In all, it was a truly amazing and humbling experience.
GAM: How have people responded to your talk?
SDM: Shortly after giving my talk, I got an email from a woman who had been in the audience the day of my talk. She told me she got in her car that day and called a friend she had ‘ghosted’ for a year because she was a vilomah and the woman just didn’t know what to say to her. I also heard from a UNC pediatrician who told me he’d treated many patients and families who had lost a child or sibling – and my talk helped guide him on how to talk to them. Another friend had a coworker who had lost a child – she told me their entire team got together to watch the talk so they could better support their colleague. All of this feedback makes me feel so good to know I’ve helped people start what is so often a difficult conversation for both sides – the grieving and everyone else who doesn’t know what to say. My hope is that we can spread the importance of having these conversations and acknowledging what might be uncomfortable for the true beauty of supporting one another and developing more meaningful relationships.
GAM: What is some advice you’d give to your fellow vilomahs?
SDM: Three things come to mind.
- Come out of the silence and start having these difficult, uncomfortable conversations. The healing you will find when you are open and honest is truly transformational.
- Groups like Compassionate Friends, which is a national non-profit organization to support those dealing with grief, can be so helpful. It was the one place I didn’t feel like I had to explain myself – everyone there was in the same horrible club as I was, so they already knew what I was feeling. This group did more for me than any psychologist or psychiatrist ever did – and I tried it all throughout my grieving process.
- Find meaningful ways that work for you to honor your child and keep their memory. For me, I keep Macie’s room in place. While that may not work for every parent, it helps me deal with the grief and have a place I can feel closer to her memory. As a family, (which includes myself; my husband, Mike; my 18-year-old son, Conner; and my 12-year-old son, Pierce) we release balloons every year on Macie’s birthday and celebrate her memory together. On my own time, I have a fairy garden that helps me connect with her memory and I have butterflies all over the house that make me think of Macie. Finally, my son and I recently went and got tattoos together on his 18th birthday – mine, of course, was a butterfly tattoo in honor of Macie. Whatever you can do to help manage the inevitable pain you’re feeling is the right thing to do.
GAM: Please tell us all about your sweet Macie.
SDM: Macie was one of those angel babies you hear about – she came out of the womb so calm, so chill. While my first born had been a bit more needy, Macie had an ease about her right from the start. She rarely cried, slept great, hit all of her milestones right on time and brought us so much happiness.
When we went into her six-month check-up, she passed everything with flying colors until I pointed out a small bruise on her belly that had been there for three weeks with no explanation. To be safe, the doctor did a quick prick on her heel to get a simple blood test and she wouldn’t stop bleeding. After quickly reviewing the blood test results, he told me to call my husband and said there was a treatment team ready to meet us at UNC. That day, Macie was diagnosed as one of the youngest acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients they’d seen. After four months of intense treatment, my Macie caught a cold that quickly spiraled into serious bowel problems that required emergency surgery. Her little body just couldn’t take it anymore and we lost her on August 5, 2005.
Even in the hospital under the worst of circumstances, Macie made us smile every day. When my son, Conner would walk in the room, her face would light up with joy and smiles. She tolerated her therapy with a calm strength you don’t see in many cancer patients. And she would get wild! In the middle of the night while we were at UNC, Macie would wake up and start dancing in her crib. On two such occasions, she’d look at me and just rip her feeding tubes out – with a little nod to acknowledge it was naughty and we’d both just laugh. That was my Macie! And, thank you for asking.
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