It’s a hopeless, destitute sound. It involves more sobbing than wailing or whining. The tears that fall from her eyes are dissolute and wet; they don’t fall in steady streams, but seem to simply spread across her face like thick humidity. It’s persistent and steady and it does not rise and fall like her other cries. It does not have a hint of anger in it – much of her other cries have lots of anger – but is heavy with despair and desperation.
She only cries like this when she’s running a fever, severely congested, or sick to her stomach. It’s different from an injury or a fall, which has an overwhelming element of shock and suddenness to it. Sustaining an injury creates an outcry of indignation at having something in the outside world inflict its damage on her body. But sickness is internal and invisible. From her toddler understanding of the world, there is nothing immediate to blame for her sickness. When she falls, she cries and identifies what part of her body is hurt, and what it was in the outside world that hurt her. She can’t do this when she’s sick; she only feels the pain.
Thankfully, we don’t hear this crying very often. But when we do, it’s unmistakable. And with the recent addition of her increased abilities at speech and diction, we have a new layer added. It used to be we had to diagnose her ourselves, using thermometers and tissues and checking the messy contents of her diapers. Now that she’s growing up, we can ask her and reasonably expect her to answer us.
A few days ago, she spiked a fever of 101.5. Not as bad as some she’s had, but she quickly turned lethargic and puny. She’s had a thick snotty cold for a few days now, and it’s turned into a drainage cough, so a fever isn’t completely unexpected. We gave her some children’s ibuprofen, lots of cuddles and kisses, and put her to bed. She slept great for a few hours, but then she woke up with her distinct sick-crying. I went to her bed, asked her what was wrong. The sick-crying was steady and unyielding, and she either didn’t hear me or couldn’t stop to respond. For a minute or more, I repeated my question: “What’s wrong?” Finally, I said, “Honey, use your words.”
“My head hurts,” she said. It was so pitiful, the tone of despondency in her voice. It was the sound of someone who has given themselves over to grief. If you stub your toe, the pain subsides after a few minutes. But a sinus headache brought on by congestion and coughing? That doesn’t let up. She said “My head hurts” with the same manner as a bereaved person mourns the loss of a loved one: miserable, dejected, helpless.
It struck a fear in my heart that I rarely feel with her. I think it’s common to feel helpless when your child is sick or hurting. What decent parent doesn’t confront his child’s pain with a bone-deep desire to make the pain vanish and feel the waves of resigned disappointment at being unable to magically disappear whatever is causing it? But when I heard her words, I not only felt my own helplessness, I felt hers. It was as if, for the first time, she also knew that I was helpless to do anything for her.
When we suffer, we begin by suffering alone in silence. Suffering and pain are experienced on the most basic level as hidden, private and unique. Ultimately, suffering and pain are none of those things, but it isn’t until we can speak our suffering out loud that we open ourselves to the realization that suffering and pain are actually revealed, communal and common experiences. In that moment the other night, however, it was my child who was suffering a headache, not me. I suffered for and with her, but she was the one in physical pain.
Crying is the body’s most primal expression of pain and suffering. Speech and language help clarify diagnosis and description, but the body knows preverbal communication for suffering. This is why parents learn their children’s cries. When she told me her head hurt, I wasn’t really enlightened with any new knowledge that changed the way I was present to her pain. I already knew she was sick and didn’t feel well. But I do believe that it helped her to say out loud what was hurting. Crying signals our need for care, but being able to verbalize my head hurts puts a name to the experience of suffering that is reasonable, identifiable and communicable. Naming and lamenting is the transition into understanding that we are not alone in our suffering.
It is this weird paradox that makes wholeness in suffering possible: that in her feelings of helplessness, she recognized that I, too, was helpless. In this shared helplessness comes solidarity. Did she understand this in the dark hours of her headache a few nights ago? Not on any tangible level, of course not. But I responded to her, “I know your head hurts. I’m sorry.” And I kissed her forehead and held her close and her crying eased a little. Would she have cried less a year ago? There’s no telling for sure, but I don’t think so. Now that she’s verbal, she has the means to transcend her suffering just a little and connect with other human beings. It’s a beautiful, liberating transformation, this new ability to openly lament. May I rise to the occasion to honor this developmental growth, never shying away from bearing witness to her suffering and pain.