Losing my son taught me a simple rule: When someone is mourning, say something

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JANUARY 19, 2024

heard it so many times in the weeks and months after I lost my son: “I don’t know what to say.” “I don’t want to say the wrong thing.” “Nobody knows what to say.” “There are no words.”

I know so much now that I didn’t know a year ago, before the night my healthy, growing, wiggling baby Ezra suddenly died inside me when I was 38 weeks pregnant. About love, about parenthood, about childbirth, about expectations, about pain.

Some of what I’ve learned, I don’t think I could teach you. Some of what I’ve learned, you don’t want to know.

But one year after Ezra’s death, here is something I learned then that might be useful to you too: When someone is grieving, just say something.

We all lose people we love. If we’re lucky, our world shuts down for a while. We stay home. We eat the food our friends send to us. When we open the door, there are flowers.

But then we reenter the world. Aching inside, we go back to work, to meetings, to parties, to small talk with the neighbors. People see us, people who probably heard about our loss on Facebook or in the company-wide email or secondhand from a friend of a friend.

Sometimes, we mourners see the look in those people’s eyes. We learn to recognize the discomfort of someone who sees pain walking up when we approach, and who doesn’t know what to say. Who doesn’t know whether to say anything at all.

Look, I get it. People tell me that they don’t want to make it worse by bringing it up, by saying the wrong thing that would cause more heartache. So they don’t say anything at all. But I have almost never been hurt by the words that someone does use — to the contrary, I have been stunned by the power and aptness and beauty of the words, from hundreds of my friends and acquaintances — while I have struggled repeatedly with silence.

I remember sitting in a circle with a few old friends one night, finding it harder and harder to participate in the chat about sports and school and work as no one but me mentioned Ezra. I knew they cared deeply about me. I knew his death had saddened and shocked them too. But this was the first time I had seen them since I was pregnant with him, and my life had changed, and it grew painful not to have someone acknowledge that out loud.

I remember going to a party out of town where friends I hadn’t seen in years greeted me by asking about my work (I was on maternity leave, mourning my baby) or about where I was living (I had moved to a family-friendly neighborhood where I felt like a misfit). In each conversation, I faced a choice: either bring up my deceased son and watch the look on their faces, or awkwardly talk around the facts at the center of my life, unsure all the while, Do you know? Others at the gathering — mostly older people, perhaps who had been through some loss themselves — were more direct. “I saw your Facebook post. I was so sorry to hear about your son.”

Once I know that you know, I can be myself in the conversation. Sometimes, we can talk about Ezra; I’ve found that many mourners cherish every chance to talk about their loved ones, to keep them here in the conversation. Most times, we can move on to all the other topics we want to talk about, without me constantly trying to sidestep my grief. On the other hand, if you don’t bring it up, I spend the cocktail party conversation wondering whether you know, feeling myself out of step with the living.

In her masterful book “Demon Copperhead,” Barbara Kingsolver got at this feeling — why it somehow helps lighten the pain for a moment to hear someone else say your loved one’s name. Her character, mourning his mother, describes the grief: “It’s more like this bag of gravel I’m hauling around every day of the year. If somebody else brings it up, honestly, I’m glad of it. Like just for that minute they can help me drag the gravel.”

The rule of thumb I recommend: Just say something. Push past the awkwardness you feel, and simply say, “I was so sorry to hear about your sister.” “It’s good to see you — I was so sad to hear about your loss.”

I remember when I too didn’t know what to say. In one vivid memory, several years ago, I recall watching my mother at a shiva, admiring the way she knelt down to a grieving friend sitting on the ground and talked at length about the husband whom the woman had just lost. I felt so tongue-tied. All I knew to say was, “I’m so sorry.”

Now, I finish sentences that I might have swallowed before Ezra’s death. I meet people in mourning, and I talk about the people they’ve lost. This year, I’ve tried to hold a tiny bit of friends’ and acquaintances’ sorrow as I asked about lost brothers, sisters, parents and children. Yes, I sometimes wonder if I am saying the wrong thing. But I don’t let that stop me anymore.

Just say something.

That’s my humble suggestion, born out of boundless gratitude for all the people who have said words of solace to me — indeed, I have gotten through this nearly impossible year thanks to the hundreds of remarkable kindnesses from my community. Never fear that “there are no right words.” There are so many more right words than you know. Trust yourself that you have the power to say them, and to ease the path for your grieving friend who needs to hear.


Courtesy: Washington Post