Saturday, November 20, 2010

OK (Deep Breath): One More Time, Here's How

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.


  1. One of the greatest gifts I learned in our spiritual direction courses was to trust that whomever you are with (in direction or not)...that they can either choose to answer your inquiry...or not.

    Asking is the important part. Even if they choose not to elaborate...they know you cared enough to ask.

  2. thank you. I've wondered if I am being an insensitive clod by inviting someone into talking about their deepest pain, especially when in a public place. but perhaps now maybe I'll be less worried about being an idiot and hope I can just be kind and caring and real.

  3. Oh my dear. That pain is enough to make you never want to go outdoors. I had one today too. She asked why I had moved and I said we lost our son and she said "Oh". Then nothing. Oh well. Part of the new landscape.

  4. All I can say is that I love you and I love your honesty.

  5. Thank you for the guidance, Robin.

    I have to admit that I hesitate a lot about initiating conversation in the case of children who have died; doesn't seem quite the same in the case of older adults. I feel as Mompriest does. But I'm so grateful that you, Karen and others speak up about it.


  6. I have to add a caveat here. This is about MOTHERS. My daughter and son would protest mightily about this suggestion being applied to them.

    My other Karen friend tells me that we are other parents' worst nightmare. I suppose we are, and their turning away, whether literally or figuratively, confirms that.

  7. Thank you for yet another helpful lesson, Robin. In both your post and comments.

  8. Thank you for sharing those encounters. I always feel so lost in what to say. A friend of mine at work just lost her only child this week (20 yrs old). I care so much for her and my heart aches for her. I want so badly to say and do the right things for her. I feel woefully inadequate. I'm sure the women you ran into felt the same way.

  9. Melissa, I am so very sorry for your friend's terrible, earth-shattering loss.

    If you can, go over and hang out with her from time to time in the next few months/years. I have been realizing lately that one of the reasons all my friendships have changed (and they do) is that while my friends have been positively heroic with the big things, I don't seem to have any memories of any of them coming over here to curl up with me to share some quiet companionship.

  10. I have two friends who have lost young children (we are all in our 30's) and I try to remember their children with my friends each year on the anniversary of their birthdays and their deaths. Unfortunately, one friend had managed to temporarily forget the date - the fourth anniversary of her son's death - until I reminded her. At work. Each mother has told me that it's a relief and a joy to hear someone else remembering her child. But perhaps at work was not really such a good time and place for such a reminder.

  11. Sarahlynn, what a wonderful friend you are. And really there is no good time or place to be, so a reminder at work seems just fine to me.