Scenario: Sitting alone at coffee shop when acquaintance walks in. In the air between us: We have known each other since the summer of 1984, which I know because we met on a maternity ward tour for expectant parents. She was expecting her first child and I was expecting my first two. We have not run into one another since Josh died, but I know that she knows, because she is a good friend of a good friend. She is a THERAPIST. She looks at me, tilts her head in that solicitous way some people have, and says, without budging from the counter, "How are you?" "I'm fine," I say across the room. Fine is such a great word, because in the context of social niceties it can mean anything from "My life is so incredible and perfect that I can't even describe it because you would think that I'm bragging" to "I am so crushed and despairing that I wonder if I will be alive tomorrow." "Oh, good," she says.
Scenario, this afternoon: Standing in line at same coffee shop, I realize that next to me is a neighbor with whom I almost never cross paths. I haven't seen her since Josh died either, but I know that she knows, because her oldest son is the same age and this city is just not that big. "How are you all?" she says. "Fine" (!) I say, and begin a conversation about how long we've lived where we do (27 and 26 years) ~ always a safe topic in this town of old houses that we are all always shoring up.
OK, Here's how you do it: You walk up to me and you say, "I haven't seen you since Josh died. I am so sorry. You must miss him desperately."
Really, how difficult can it be? Are you under the impression that there's some time of day or night when I'm not thinking about him? I suppose you might be; there's that friend of mine who said that she didn't want to remind her sister of her sister's dead son.
Or maybe I should be the initiator. I had to do that today with someone I have not seen in years who would have had no reason to know, and whose question, "How are the kids?" was a completely innocent one. It was so much easier to say it right out, to say that one is in grad school and one is in law school and one died two years ago, and she responded with great dignity and grace. I hope she is not feeling bad about our encounter, because I think she pulled it off beautifully.
The thing is, if you already know, and I know that you know, and I bring it up first, it sounds as if I am accusing you of being an insensitive lout. So I try not to do that.
You have to go first. That's just how it is.