What Bereaved Parents Want From You
There’s an article in the New York Times written by a bereaved mother that mirrors in exquisite detail my own feelings — the difference is that the author is braver than I. Her account of her behavior in the aftermath of her teen daughter’s death is unflinchingly honest, lurid and shocking.
In the article,* K.A.Leddy writes of dashing to another aisle in the grocery store if she spotted a neighbor or someone from her children’s school in the early months of her bereavement. If that same person was seen again, she would pick up whatever food was closest and “appear to be engrossed in its label.” If that failed and she found herself cornered, she would abandon her cart and dart for her car. She could have been writing about me. I don’t think I attempted the supermarket in the early months following Natasha’s passing, but I remember taking my surviving daughter to the playground, covered up like an aging Hollywood starlet who had just had “work” done to her face and wanted to dodge the paparazzi: my hat, scarf and large sunglasses were my shield. At other desperate times, I’d reserve those trips for after dark (that meant I had to forgo the sunglasses, but the likelihood of seeing an acquaintance would be lower).
Both Leddy and I are far from unique, judging from the flurry of letters that followed her article. “Rachel’s mom” confided that visits to the grocery store became “a horrible detour through a haunted house … a harrowing excursion;” a reader from Israel whose teen daughter was killed in a terror attack 12 years ago, said she still switches aisles and scrutinizes can labels to avoid people in supermarkets; and another bereaved parent compared the early days of grief with being in the mafia: “I didn’t enter a room at a gathering without first ascertaining that I could quickly reach an unobstructed exit, the minute I needed to escape.”
Reading about these experiences has made me feel a little less alone — maybe my own avoidant behavior wasn’t (or isn’t?) so bizarre — but I’m sure that these comments must be perplexing for the non-bereaved. After all, aren’t they supposed to reach out to us rather than shun us?
I think most of us get it wrong when we approach the bereaved. And I’m including myself in “most of us” (although I hope that I know better now).
Years ago, when cancer was a word that was rarely uttered in our household –- why would it be, both of our kids were apparently healthy — an elderly relative who lived in a different state had passed away. She was in her early 90s and according to family lore, was “ready.” I picked up the phone to offer condolences and was pleasantly surprised to hear the voice of her daughter — someone we’d enjoyed dinner with a few years ago.
“Ann, how lovely to hear from you!” I gushed. There was a silence on the end of the phone. “How are you?” I continued, bubbling with enthusiasm. There was another pause. “I’m not doing too well,” she said, her voice low and flat.
Flummoxed that I’d mishandled the conversation, I quickly tried to remedy my errant cheerfulness by resorting to a wearied cliché: “Well, let me know if there’s anything you need.”
Clumsy and inept as I had been, others were worse, according to readers of Leddy’s article. One mother, whose weeks-old son had died, was “comforted” by another new mother with these words: “Well, it’s so much work to take care of an infant — at least you don’t have to deal with that.” Months later at Christmastime, the same mother sent a “bucolic Christmas photo of her with baby,” accompanied by a letter extolling the delights of parenthood. At the bottom, she had written, “Thinking of you.”
“To this day, I can barely say her name aloud,” she wrote.
Another parent who had lost an adult daughter was told that her death was “such a shame, considering all the money spent on her education.”
Not all readers that responded to Leddy’s article were gracious. One reader said that every effort to say something comforting to the newly bereaved should be appreciated. I disagree. I think we need to say far less and listen far more.
Leddy describes an impromptu meeting with an acquaintance who had greeted her with nothing more than a tight wordless hug. That hug, she says, allowed her to “slowly exhale.” This was someone who had “gotten it exactly right.”
I’ve been the recipient of one or two of those silent hugs, myself. On one occasion early on in my loss, I was walking home after picking up my surviving daughter from school when I saw a casual friend whom I’d known for more than a decade approach me. Where to run? Crossing the road would look ridiculous and how would I explain this to my child? Could I pretend that I had forgotten something and abruptly turn back to school? No, that would look weird, too, and besides I might run into someone else. I was trapped.
I braced myself for a litany of phrases that I was used to hearing: the upbeat “How are you?” (said in a way that almost demanded that you respond with a, “Great, thanks!”), the cookie-cutter, “Let me know if there’s anything you need,” and worst of all, “When my mother/dog/sister/grandma passed away, I …”
I kept on walking toward Jennifer, head down. But this time no words were exchanged. Jennifer wrapped both arms around me, looked deeply and briefly into my eyes and moved on. Like the acquaintance of Leddy’s, she had “gotten it exactly right.”
Not everyone’s comfortable with a hug, but most bereaved parents know that kind gestures can speak louder than words. The gentle smile, the brief touch of the arm, the flowers left on our doorstep on our late daughter’s birthday — those actions let us know that these people are “listening” even when we don’t speak. One day we might be ready to talk to them.
*K.A.Leddy: “Ducking Grief” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/22/booming/ducking-grief.html?_r=0