Saturday, December 21, 2013

'I Just Don't Know What to Say'

Ten years ago, a friend of mine lost her daughter in a car accident. I knew she had to be in such incomprehensible pain, and I didn't know what to say.

We didn't have the fairly safe option of sending a post on Facebook, or a text message. I knew that to offer any sympathy, I would have to confront that raw pain. I would have to pick up the phone and let myself dip my toes in a dark lake where I didn't want to go, a dark lake where it would be too easy to drown.

So, for a long time, I didn't talk to her. Our jobs had changed and we weren't in as much contact anyway. Then came the day when I saw her across a drug store parking lot. I still remember thinking she hadn't seen me and I could just go in because she was almost to her car. Instead I called her name and walked across the lot to talk to her.

I still didn't know what to say, but it didn't matter. She didn't need to hear my words, she needed to feel my support and caring. She needed to talk about her daughter, her family, their process and pain, and for a long time I stood and held her and listened and cried.

This week she came to my house and held me and listened to my rambling voice and ignored the uncombed hair, wrinkled clothing and unmade face and the chaos of three small children and three small dogs beneath our feet. Before she left I apologized for not coming to her sooner.

In the last few days, I've received support from strangers who somehow found this blog and sent me comments or Facebook messages. I've been overwhelmed by the calls and texts and visits. I've been lifted up by the people in my life, some of whom I don't really even know beyond casually, who have gone the extra mile (sometimes literally) to let me know they care. But like my friend, who may have noticed that I didn't call, there have been people I know and care about who have been absent.

While I have wanted them to call or reach out in some way, I understand their absence, because at one time I did the same. Although we're fairly comfortable talking to someone who has lost a parent -- after all, that's the "natural" order of things -- and we come closer to being able to deal with the loss of a spouse or sibling, the loss of a child is something that we don't want to think about.

I understand that you don't want to get near a parent's grief because you think you can imagine how bad it is and you just don't know what to say or do. For a parent, the loss of a child is the worse thing you can imagine, and I can tell you it is worse that you can imagine. You don't want that pain to touch you, even from someone else. You don't want to imagine being pulled into that dark lake and knowing that your child, that baby that you held when they were born, that you helped learn to walk, ride a bike, and all the millions of things along the way to whatever point they have reached, is gone.

I understand, because that knowledge will knock the breath from your chest, set your heart racing and send you reeling through your days, looking for bits of a normal life to hang on to.

But from this side of the invisible wall that separates parents with living children from parents who have lost a child, I can tell you that reaching out is what we need.

Except for those few special people who I know who have already walked this path for different reasons, you won't know what to say. And here's a secret, even if you've lost a child, you still don't have any words that will take away the grief from another parents' heart, all you have then is the knowledge that it is something you can survive.

However people have reached out to me, they have said, "I don't know what to say." And do you know, I don't expect them to? I don't expect my pastor to have some magical answer from God or some scripture that will give me understanding. I don't expect my best friend to be able to make me smile. I don't expect the people that I've worked or played alongside to have the words to help fill this hole in my heart. I don't expect other parents who have lost children to be able to do more than offer me hope.

All a grieving parent needs is a hug, a shoulder to cry on and an ear that isn't already tired of hearing the same broken story that we come to feel we've repeated a million times. We need to cry. We need to touch life. We may find a hug that reminds us of the one that is gone and if we do, I'm sorry, but we may ask you for a hug a hundred times before the pain in our hearts eases one iota. We need to talk about our child because we know that child is dead, but we need to know that others remember that he lived. If you were the child's friend, share your memories and pictures. If you never knew them, let the parent give a memory. Just be there.

This week, my words have been about the struggle to save him from himself. Sometimes they have been about my guilt, because whatever happens to a child, a parent will feel some responsibility. With some people they have been about my hope that this can somehow be part of helping someone else and making a difference. There will be a time when I want to talk about how wonderful he was before he changed, when I let myself take down the photo albums and cry over the baby, the little boy, and the adolescent that I lost inside the broken young man who died. There will be a time when I slowly begin to take out my dreams for him and weep over them because they will never come true.

Everyone who has reached out to me, be they fellow travelers in this land of grief, friends, or strangers, has helped me keep going. They've helped me hold myself together because they have said they care, because they've sent up prayers, because they've been willing to listen in one way or another to what I needed to say, because they've let my son into their lives and grieved along with me.

No, there is nothing anyone can say that makes it better. As my friends who know have said, it's not something you get over, it's something you get through and live with. This will be my reality for the rest of my time on earth. Maybe there will be days when I don't think about it, and I'm sure in time it won't consume me, but it always will be a part of me.

So what can you do when there's nothing you can do?

Don't flee from the pain of a grieving parent because you don't know what to say. Don't avoid talking about the child you knew or mentioning the loss. Don't worry about doing the wrong thing. Don't feel helpless in the face of our pain.

Open your ears, your arms and your heart and be honest. Go ahead and say, "I don't know what to say." It's OK. No one does. We'll do the talking for you.

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