This opening story, like the last one I posted, is dangerous but instructive and essential. It is also, I hope, beautiful. Not beautiful in the conventional sense, but beautiful in its discord-leading-to-resolution. Before sharing, I want to explain that I’ve already passed it under the eyes of those implicated, and in their humility and loving-kindness they’re willing to have it shared publicly even if it’s not too terribly flattering at first. They want it told.
Two months into our new life in Munich, two months after burying our son in another country, and my parents have not contacted us yet.
No phone calls. No emails. And I’m growing despondent.
But do I call them?
Because I’m overwhelmed with sadness, for one thing. I’m saturated with our three children’s sadness, with my husband’s sadness, which sad saturation is compounded, of course, by the demands of an international move managed under extreme physical and psychological impairment, and in the vacuum of no familiar support community, a vacuum that’s gaining suction with every week that passes.
Why else am I not calling? As strange as it seems I am afraid.
I am afraid that family and friends are now done. They’ve moved on to brighter things, lighter things.
And then the trailing question to that thought strangles me: is that what they’re expecting me to do, too? Be done? Am I supposed to “get over it”? Get it behind me? Get to work? Get myself together, get a grip, get on with life, get a life?
I’ve never done this before, this incomprehensible and inescapable pain, so I don’t know the rules. I do know, however, that I’m doing really well just getting up.
I’m afraid of other things, too. I’m afraid of what might happen as soon as I open my mouth, afraid of the inadequacies of language to transmit what I can barely understand myself, afraid of puncturing the thick and sacred walls I’ve built around this island of grief we’ve been shipwrecked on.
Furthermore, I’m afraid that my call will be misperceived as a prompt for pity.
But here’s the main thing: in spite of all of the above and far deeper than every other fear, I am afraid that if no one talks with me about my son he will begin to slip from my grasp. He will disappear into oblivion. I recoil at a quote I find from Russian author Alexander Pushkin, “Oblivion is the natural lot of anyone not present. It’s horrible, but true.”
So this, fear instructs me, is how I will lose my child a second time.
Confused, overwhelmed and afraid, I go even deeper inside. I climb down into a crater I’ve dug with my nails in the middle of my grief island. And I crouch there. I go very, very quiet. And a wee bit crazy. Bereaved parents – even those in the very best of circumstances – often feel crazy. Just ask them. I get a bitter little swig of the crazees.
I crouch. I wait. I watch. I wait. And wait.
I wait more.
Last week of October and a gunmetal gray day presses down on the Isar river outside our apartment window. The leaf-shedding trees I’ve been watching daily, hourly, are emaciated, stripped down to bark nakedness. I am in my robe. It is midafternoon. The phone rings. It is my parents. The call goes something like this:
(They’re both addressing me on speakerphone. Their voices are slightly unnatural, and remind me of pastel taffy. Sugary softness wrapped in wax with tight twists at both ends.)
“Our whole California trip was just wonderful, Melissa. Very enjoyable and relaxing.”
“. . .Um-huh.”
“Yes. Mom and I thought the hotels were comfortable, and the weather, well, what did you think, Donna?”
“Very comfortable. Unseasonably warm. . .even balmy. . .”
“. . .Um-huh.
“And then there was the hotel swimming pool. Kidney shaped. Too cold, but deep aqua tiles. Pretty to look at.”
“. . .Um-huh.”
And so forth.
When we hang up, I drop the phone on the bed. I’m immobile with exhaustion. I can’t lift my head. From one half-opened eye I see on the bedspread that I’ve left a dark blue tear-print as big as a tile-lined kidney-shaped swimming pool.
Alone in this small, dim bedroom I feel all my cells collapsing and my bones turning to syrup and my torso cramping and my neck muscles tensing. Then I hear an animal in me yowling very quietly through gritted teeth and a clenched jaw.
And I fall majorly apart.
Who knows how long it lasts.
At some point I pull myself together, gather my wits, blow my nose, pray out loud, cry a few words to Parker, and call back my parents. That conversation goes something like this:
(My voice is also slightly unnatural, like I’m just coming out from under anesthesia.)
“Oh, it’s you again, honey. Good, good! Did we forget something?”
“I. . .I need. . .” I have been lying on my side, but now I sit up to assume my erect, well-planted persona. This way I can breathe and project better. “I am going to say something now. . .”
“Melissa? Did we do something? You sound. . .Wha – did we say the wrong thing?… Sweetheart?”
(“David, come back. Hurry. She’s on the phone.”)
“Mom?. . .I need. . .what I want is. . .” I close my eyes. “Can we just talk. . .talk about. . . about what matters?”
By now my dad, who’s turned off the speakerphone, has the receiver close to his lips. His voice vibrates in its lowest register. I know this voice: panic-control mode.
“Melissa? Now tell us please, honey. What do you need to talk to us about?”
I try to speak, but it’s too physically demanding to push words ahead of the crying that is surging, it seems, upwards from the floor of my gut, so I make some incomprehensibly muffled sounds. My parents wait patiently on their end of the line as I begin filling up that kidney-shaped pool with the tears of a child.
Infantilized. I’m six years old again, needing my mommy and daddy, I think while I keep fighting for breath between gasps and whimpers, scrambling to find my mind, find myself. How can this be happening? I don’t know how to control any of this. This forty-something someone, the one who just a short season ago was resourceful and commanding enough to referee several major international moves, plucky and outspoken enough to lecture before hundreds, a turbo-chargedjoie de vivre Type A type. . .That someone is replaced by a mucus-drooling amoeba, a formless heap of swollen-eyed sweaty-stale bathrobeness that can’t form a single pronounceable shape in her rubber-slobbery mouth.
“Melissa?” My dad’s now whispering.
“Oh, Melissa, dear, what did Dad and I do? Was it the pool, honey? Oh, darling…” my mother’s voice is cracking. “That’s it, David. I knew it. Oh, I. . .Should we, should we not have said the word pool?. . .David, you see? I just knew we’d say something wrong–”
“No! NO, Mom.” I drill a fist into the mattress. “No! I. . .I just – I need to talk. . .But. . .I can not talk about just anything. I have to talk about Parker. About him. I need us to talk about Par—”
The dam ruptures. The floodgates smash. Deluge. Tides of tears. From both sides of the Atlantic.
Hurriedly, my parents explain that they’ve intentionally not called for so long to “give us room”. They didn’t want to “open any wounds”, they say. They didn’t want to “remind us of our loss.”
“The longer we didn’t take contact,” my mom’s voice is twisted with pain, “the more awkward we felt about calling.”
“You hadn’t been calling us”, my dad interjects softly, “so we reasoned that you must have been doing well. . . enough.”
Which they knew was probably unlikely, they say, but they had at least hoped. . .And in the worst case scenario if in fact we weren’t doing well we probably wanted to be left alone. “Were we wrong?” my dad asks.
“Besides all of that,” my mom cuts in, “we’ve been traveling, you know, and lecturing,” which I know was their way of finding a practical distraction from heavy things. My dad, during those days around the funeral, had been discreetly clenching his chest. I didn’t know how much of the weight of grief his aging heart could bear. He probably needed reprieve. “Death, like the sun,” wrote La Rochefoucauld, “are not to be looked at steadily.”
They explain to me how hard it was to decide to finally call, that before they dared pick up the phone, they’d agreed on a game plan. No mention of anything even remotely associated with Parker. And by all means keep the tone upbeat and frothy – light, feathery talk – to divert attention from, you guessed it, the mammoth Isle of Grief I was sitting on, the one as big as the whole Atlantic ocean between us. The one getting bigger by the moment.
I have no words. I wrap a moist, shredding tissue in and around my fingers, which are stone cold.
“Melissa, sweet daughter,” my mom’s voice is loosening as if massaged with oil. “We love you, honey, and we’re so sad about Parker we can hardly. . .” There is silence. I hear the unfamiliar sound of my mom trying to talk through tears.
“What your mother’s trying to say,” my dad adds, “is that we can hardly breathe.”
Now it is the far more unfamiliar sound of my dad struggling through tears.
“We are sorry, darling.” Mom has the voice of a young girl.
“And,” Dad clears his throat, “we’re deeply, deeply sad. Mournful. You know,” he speaks so softly that if I close my eyes, I could swear he and my mom are sitting on the edge my bed, “this is all so new to us. We don’t know how to do this well. But let’s change this, can we? Can we change this and stay in this horrible thing together? Please?”
Every blessed day from that moment on and for months on end, at three a.m. Mountain Standard Time, my mom, unable to sleep for her own suffocating sorrow at losing her beloved oldest grandchild, called Munich.
The newly bereaved are incapable of thinking of anything else but their loss and their past. Buttoning a collar, folding gym socks, stapling homework, putting a key in the ignition, sitting and staring and feeling their own heart beat–all of it is downright freighted, barnacled, throbbing with loss. If we as co-mourners think it is our job to fill our interactions with our grieving friends with empty chatter in order to not “remind” the bereaved of their loss, or if we feel things will be better if we never say a word, we are mistaken. If we think it’s better we all pretend nothing happened, and that we as friends are safer staying far away, we are also terribly mistaken.
Being thus mistaken, we might find ourselves returning to our broken friends much (too much) later saying the following. (I will protect the identity of the speakers, but want you to know that these are not fiction. They are quotes with good people’s faces behind them):
“I couldn’t speak to you. Your story kind of intimidated me.”
“I just didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. I am so sorry.”
“I was afraid I’d say something that would hurt you more.”
“I didn’t want to get you worked up about the past.”
“I figured you wanted space.”
“I’ve never known loss, so I don’t know how to do this.”
“I didn’t want to impose myself.”
“Your pain frightened me. You looked too sad to approach”
“I felt totally helpless. I kept trying to find something original to say. But I guess I never found that thing.”
“You were so sad for so long, and I was worried. I thought the gospel was supposed to fix these things.”
“We didn’t know how to help you find closure.”
“I’ve been an awful friend. Honestly, I’ve been so distracted with other things in my life.”
“We thought we’d wait a few weeks until you looked like you were over the worst part, until you were healed. Then it seems the weeks passed so quickly and, well. . .”
“I know it’s been a few months since I last checked in. Can you catch me up?”
“A parent’s worst nightmare. I hope you’ll forgive me, but I just didn’t dare get close to it, to you.”
The newly bereaved can become despondent and/or angry and/or resentful if we as co-mourners choose to avoid them. If fear, discomfort , self-absorption or self-consciousness drive us to silence or to a literal detour away from them (and down another aisle in the grocery store, for instance), the bereaved will probably interpret this as a tacit disregard of their loss. We needn’t ambush them with attention or crush them with affection. But if we disassociate ourselves from them while we wait at a distance for them to “get over it” , we not only lose the great blessing – for them and for us – to help them in their greatest hour of need which will offer us a chance for great spiritual bonding with them and with heaven, but we risk disappearing from that relationship definitively. The process of mourning is by nature constant, constantly changing and communal; it is not something distanced friends can later “catch up” on.
So we have a challenging dynamic here. We grief-stricken have to ask ourselves: is this harmful conspiracy of silence partially our own fault? I have a hard time admitting it myself, but I’ve concluded that yes, it’s partially been my fault. This conspiracy of silence was partially my fault because, as is typical and understandable of those battling with the huge physiological and psychological demands of acute grief, I simply did not have it in me to coach others on how to reach me.
And, as the story of the phone call illustrates, the very idea of coaching others – even the most intimate and lifelong confidantes – on how to grieve with me was loaded with traps and cul de sacs and second-guesses and frustration.
I have reason to believe that in this respect, my story is not at all unique.
From all that I have gathered in five years of studying this, most bereaved generally don’t want to force on anyone a conversation about their deceased loved one although a continued conversation is exactly what they want and need.
Why are we bereaved so tentative, then, about initiating such conversations? There are as many reasons as there are grievers. But here are just a few possibilities. What if people stare back dully (as some will), or look at their watches (as some will), or grow jittery and awkward, stuttering with no response except maybe, “So. . . is it therapeutic for you to talk about your [son, sister, wife, father] like this?” (as some will.)
What if they quickly change the subject?
As many (most) undoubtedly will.
Challenging dynamics, indeed.
And of course they are challenging. They are challenging because there is little in life that is as intimate as the loss of it, little that is as delicate and multidimensional as the living’s personal response to it. And someone else’s loss puts my own mortality in boldface. And certain cultures are squeamish about touching on painful and unphotogenic issues. And, and, and. But all these And’s don’t absolve us from the charge to counter the old modes of response with something that is authentic and broken in ourselves. Because true religion (what happens between us human beings in extremis) is supposed to be challenging. How else are we to be brought to Christ but through challenging dynamics? Challenging relationships?
What will happen to us when we find ourselves not in a supporting role in a drama of in extremis, but when we are the lead figure? When the tragic loss is our own, not our neighbor’s? And then our parents don’t call and we feel the first heart-hardenings of despondency. And then church members appear incapable of engaging in our life so colored with mourning, and we feel the slightest simmer of resentment. When a sibling here or a sister-friend there disappears, it seems, from off the face of the earth, and we smell a small saucepan of outrage boiling on our frontal lobe.
When our heart begins feeling a bit dried out, then brittle, then crusty from anger, curling up around the edges under a low grade fuming, toasting under the grill of judgment, blistering beneath the scorch of our own expectations?
We might call to mind Job, who lost livelihood and life, family and friends, all his possible supporting actors: “He hath put my brethren far from me, and mine acquaintances are verily estranged from me./ My kinsfolk have failed, and my familiar friends have forgotten me.” (Job 20:13,14)
And in the final chapter of his book, this man who has literally nothing left to lose, offers up a precious intangible. He offers forgiveness.
Upon seeing God clearly for the first time, (“I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye seeth thee”), Job feels compelled to repent “in dust and ashes.” When he does, God announces that Job will be acceptable when Job “prays for his friends.”
Job’s trial is not complete, his refinement not perfected until he forgives and prays for and on behalf of those who have added to his misery.
He has seen God. Now he is being asked to be as God. Stripped of all former glory, ground into the dust, mocked, misjudged, condemned, abandoned.
And still worthy to become the High Priest only on condition of mercy and forgiveness:
“And the Lord turned the captivity of Job when he prayed for his friends.”
What might that prayer have been, the one Job spoke on behalf of his friends? I suspect it would have prefigured another prayer uttered by the only true and great High Priest:
“Father, forgive us all for we know not what we do.”
From Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward
If you and I want to be free of the bitterness that estranges us from others and eats away at our own struggle to find joy again, we are going to have to forgive and pray for the friends who have let us down. They might not deserve it. In fact, they probably don’t. But then, we don’t forgive people because they deserve it; we forgive them because we’ve been forgiven so much by God and because we want to keep in close relationship with God.
–Nancy Guthrie, Holding on to Hope, 68
Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings—never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.
—N. Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 35
There’s only one thing worse than speaking ill of the dead—and that is not speaking of the dead at all.
It seems impossible to me to understand the cruelty of friends and family who desert parents at such a time. But in my research I found countless couples who had horror stories to relate, such as a brother, once close, who stopped calling his sister shortly after her child died, or friends who were never heard from again after the funeral.
–H. Schiff, The Bereaved Parent, 102
Good friends are like angels. Our friends brought us God’s presence and love. They did not solve our problems, as if grief were a problem to be solved. They did not dispense pious phrases. Our closest friends allowed us to be in as much pain as we were in and did not trivialize it by trying to move us beyond it. The angel in the garden did not say to Jesus, ”There, there.” In fact, we do not know what the angel said, or if the angel said anything at all. We are quite comfortable with not having anything to say.
–G. Floyd, My Grief Unveiled
Only the man who has had to face despair is really convinced that he needs mercy. Those who do not want mercy never seek it. It is better to find God on the threshold of despair than to risk our lives in a complacency that has never felt the need of forgiveness. A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.