Thankfully, I have found several groups for bereaved parents on Facebook. Yes, they are the yin to Facebook’s otherwise troubling yang, but the shattered hearts convened in them are full and present. They weave together the bitter and sweet, the dark and the light, the loss and the love. Thinking of Leonard Cohen’s wisdom, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
These sacred conclaves provide safety and warmth in the midst of grief’s pervasive miasma. They have exacting parameters, like “Loss of an Adult Children,” “Sudden Death,” “Parents Who Have Lost Sons,” and “Refuge in Grief.” And their openheartedness is as transformative as it is devastating. In fact, their kind words often keep me functioning on my worst days. It’s a level of knowing no one else possesses.
Part of the pain of living with the death of a child is the ancillary awkwardness of engaging with other people in the world every day. The tragic reality of losing a child is a stark identity that seeps into every interaction, whether expressed on the outside or fiercely contained on the inside. Every conversation is a reminder, ladened with trenchant decisions about what to say, how to say it or whether to say it at all. It’s like having two or three people arguing inside your head all the time.
A recent question on one of these precious groups sparked a deeper dive into my own lexicon of grief. A member posted, “What do people say that helps you most?” This intrigued me, as I thought taking inventory of what resonates with this group of irreparable hearts might help other humans who stumble around those struggling with grief or who avoid them completely.
Let’s start at the top. This list is full of contractions, but then, so is grief.
Say nothing. This might seem counterintuitive, but it makes perfect sense. This is about just being present, just saying you are present. That’s all. In pre-COVID times, it meant hugging, sitting next to you on the couch or just holding a hand silently. I think this is the ultimate comfort in grief—like sitting shiva in Judaism. You don’t have to talk or offer beverages or speak. Just be. Allow the pain without fixing, evangelizing, entertaining, cajoling or minimizing. Human presence is a divine gift and a relief. In writing, it translates as “I have no words, but I am here.” Or “my heart is with you.” The grace is in the spaces between.
2. “I am here.”
“I am here” gives a voice to the above. This response ranked high. As grief guru David Kessler says, “Grief must be witnessed to be healed.” Strange but true. “I am here.” “I see you.” “I hear you.” “I am here for you.” “I am here anytime, day or night.” “I am here when you need to talk or when you don’t want to talk.” This is the power of presence.
3. Say their names, share their memories
Casual acquaintances frequently shy away from saying my son Elliot’s name, and they sometimes visibly cringe if I do. But I love it when someone asks, “Will you share a favorite memory of Elliot?” Or says, “Let’s talk about Elliot. Remember when he . . .” or “I want to tell you a story you might not about Elliot.” Saying their names keeps their memories alive—so personally and poignantly. The invitation to share a memory somehow propels his memory into the present moment instantly. He doesn’t feel so gone. For a brief moment, it’s more sweet than bitter.
4. “I will never comprehend your pain.”
Every grief is different—as unique as every loss. Though we may share commonalities in our stories, the essential pain is our own. Offering acknowledgement of this can be very comforting and healing—like a specially compounded ointment. “I can’t possibly begin to know your pain or how you go on.” “I have no idea what you are going through, but I am here for you in any way I can be.” I suppose this is a riff on “I am here,” adding the shared dimension of incredulity.
5. Speak from your heart
You don’t have to fix. Just feel. “My heart breaks.” “My heart hurts.” “My heart bleeds.” “My heart is next to yours.” “My heart is with you.” There is something visceral and intimate about these statements. It’s both physical and emotional. Elliot will always live in my heart and in the hearts of all those who adored him—the agony and the joy in one place.
I am in no way suggesting we should script such things. Far from it, but I would like to see us cultivate a greater ease and openness with loss—allowing space for its enormity to expand. It is scary, but we are here on the earth to be in relationship—to be better at being human in the hard times.
But as a grief-averse culture, we simply don’t have the everyday language around life’s most painful events. I find this ironic since the pandemic has made the immediacy of grief as much a part of life as the joy of birth. And yet, the social dialogue is still tense, brittle and detached. So much so, we continue to default to the perfunctory, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” How did this happen? I’m sorry . . . for your loss? It does not even make sense. You don’t need to apologize for my loss. And “sorry” is a flimsy word, like trying to put out a fire with a Dixie cup. Just feels inadequate.
In the ebb and flow of the pandemic, we are in a both/and world—forced to learn a new way to be as we live. There is no new normal. Perhaps, a new tolerable—with the occasional glimmer of joy. I want to learn to carry the loss and the love together, the grief and the grace. Grief will always be a part of who I am down to the marrow—not just something that happened to me I have to get over. The tap dance of OK-ness is utterly exhausting. But the dark pit of despair is no place to exist, either.
So, I’m not going to list the ridiculous clichés. You’ve heard them. You may even say them. (No judgement.) But here are a few other great words worth sharing from the collection:
“This totally sucks, but I’ve got you.”
“I want to know everything about Elliot—when you are ready.”
“You will get to a place where the sting of the pain softens a bit. Until then, I will be here for you every step of the way.”
“I love you. You are loved . . . always.”
“It’s OK to not be OK for as long as it takes. Allow yourself to feel and grieve at your own pace.”
“If you want to share your pain, I will catch what I can. I am here to sit or listen, and hold a space for you.”
“I can’t take your pain away, but I do have a shoulder to cry on and ears to listen.”
Megan Devine, another one of my grief gurus says, “Acknowledgement makes things better even when they cannot be made right. It’s a radical act to allow others pain and sit beside them with it.” In the end, grief is love.