I am honored to offer you the powerful words of a friend who suffered one of the most challenging losses in a lifetime…the loss of a child.
I have known Kathy for a number of years and have come to deeply honor and respect her wisdom and experiences. Recently, we were discussing transitions in our lives and our common interest in words and writing. She shared the following with me and I responded to her with this: The beauty – the raw truth – of what you have here is among the most emotionally engaging pieces I have read in a very, very long time.
The timing and poignancy of this post is certainly not lost on me. The events in Parkland, Florida, just this week, are yet one more example of how quickly change happens when unexpected tragedies directly touch our lives.
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There are ten things that should never be said to a grieving parent.
Or six things.
They are too much for the bereaved mind to handle. But the truth of the matter is that these ten or six or four hundred things will be said. They will be said and worse things will be said and you don’t so much want to shrivel up and die as you do want to be able to live with yourself and keep a claim on your sanity.
When I was a newly bereaved parent, I couldn’t believe what people said to me. And continued to say to me even after I said something forthright like: Please don’t say that to me or anyone else ever again. I became aware of people who wanted to pull me aside to have a private word with me. And that, I learned, was a 100% bad idea. Nothing positive was ever said. Confessions were made, god was exalted, god was bad mouthed. I had questions for them—like, why would you pull me away from a sunny day to say something awful to me? It was as awful as anything you might imagine.
What did people say? Oh, plenty. One of my brother’s sang this song: Oh, your father is dead and your brother is dead, and your sister is dead…then said, kath, remember that song by the dead kennedys? He’s my brother, and he knew we were suffering and he shouldn’t have said it to my daughter and me. But he did. A friend told me the week after my son died that I didn’t have the flu and maybe getting out of bed would make me feel better. But I did have the flu. Let’s assume I didn’t, I couldn’t lie in bed a few hours a day while I wrapped my brain around this? A woman wrote and told me that when her only child died, she felt like killing herself. And many days she still felt like killing herself. And that I probably would too. A friend of my mother’s called to tell me that no one cared about my troubles, I should just get over it, and I would be boring to my friends if I grieved much longer. A woman left a message on our phone saying, “You know the way these kids drive around they deserve…” but I pressed save right there every single time. I eventually erased it without listening to it all the way through. A reporter from the local newspaper called to ask me what I thought of the family whose son was in the car with ours. The boy who was killed in the car along with our son. Him and their family. What I thought. Imagine.
I was stunned. I was shocked. I could barely sleep for rethinking those phone calls. I could barely get through the day after chance meetings with acquaintances who said we needed to talk about the elephant in the room. I got a letter in the mail from a friend who that said they were so happy to have their intact family and our family’s tragedy had made them grateful every day for their healthy, robust children. Still. I jogged around the block every day. I was vertical. I helped my other children continue with their lives. I thought I was doing well. Yet I couldn’t believe how misunderstood I felt and how undone I must have appeared to so many others.
How was there not a language reserved for this situation? How is it that we all have to stumble along still using the same words the same language. How could salt still be salt? How could it be that there is not a second more tender language that everyone, everyone begins speaking after a tragedy of such proportion?
I was a god girl before and after the accident, but here’s a question that was really on my mind—why had god left me alone to fend for myself in the world of aggressively silly comments. I could only conclude that god had not left me alone. There was evidence all around. The friends who said nothing but showed up. The sister-in-law who could only cry and not offer one piece of advice. The acquaintance who waved and stayed on his side of the street. My running shoes pointing out the door every morning. The hey baby, hey darlin’ that are the priceless endearments earned by doing nothing in the south. One day I was in the produce section of a local grocery store, the only one I could bear to go into, when I caught the sympathetic eye of a woman who bestowed a look on me and said nothing.There was god, all right. I could see that. But my question every night—why didn’t god intervene in more of these situations I found myself in? I could only further conclude that it’s our job not god’s or anyone else’s to get it all straight.
Of course, here’s the problem.
What we saw and heard and did so transformed our atoms that we were immediately changed by it forever. Everyone else got to wake up every day without the knowledge we now had. Maybe other people stood by their bedroom windows that next morning, the first morning after our son and his friend died, and did as I did in noting that the sun had indeed come up. That the world was going on. I stood and noted that with my newly rearranged atoms and wondered complex thoughts about the beginning of time and what this time would be called. And wondered about my boy.
Here’s what we saw that seared our brains: the crash site with our son and his friend trapped in the twisted metal of the single car accident.
Here’s what we heard: nothing. Because when everyone at a crash site is dead there are no sirens.
Here’s what we did: my husband said I’m going over there, I held onto his arm and said do not look in that car, you will never, ever be able to live with what you see. We hugged our friends, the other parents, who had also driven to the crash site. We said words that are now lost, the fathers walked closer to the car, the mothers stood in the dark and held onto each other.
And other things: We went home and woke up our other children, we called our jobs, we called friends, we did not weep.
Not then. Not yet.
This is just to say that there’s no limit to the number of things that should not be said to a parent in grief.
But they will be said.
And, here’s the worst and best of it — you’re not above making the same kind of mistake. Three or four years after we lost our son, my husband and I walked to the house of a friend whose husband had just died. She had spent many, many hours on our couch talking about her husband, crying about her loss, her children. So much so that I felt intimate with her pain. And so when we walked to her house to express our sadness, I was instead struck stupid, smiling, asking people how they were. Smiling. Stupidly abstractly and without thought.
So what are you going to do? Do not hang on to bad thoughts, erase that damn voice message sooner, laugh at your brother’s stupidity for surely you will be stupid in much the same way in a second or two. And infuse that brain with new images—you’re not going to replace the image of the car or your son’s dead body for a while. It’s going to be years. But give your brain a fighting chance by exposing it to beauty. And then you have to forgive yourself for wishing stupid people more pain. Then forgive them. Then you have to stupidly love people again. That’s when your brain begins to see beauty.
Sometimes the slant of sunlight coming in a window at the close of day is enough. I swear, sometimes that alone it is enough.
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Thank you, Kathy.
“People are like stained glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within”