This essay aired 30 July 2010 on NPR affiliate 88.1 WVPE.
“The middle of the produce section was not the place that I wanted to perform my dance of grief”
I am here today, dear listener, to help you better understand how to talk to a person who has had someone very close to them die. It is not an easy task because everyone who mourns mourns differently and has different needs from their social encounters. I offer you this suggestion: be Ginger Rogers. Ginger Rogers did all that great dancing with Fred Astaire, but in high heels and backwards and with a smile on her face.
This means that the person in mourning is Fred Astaire to your Ginger. And you need to follow their lead, hyper aware of every nuance of the encounter: listen closely to what the person is saying and try to discern where they want the conversation to go: are they pushing here, pulling there. I cannot emphasize enough the need to mindful of the direction they are taking you, not the direction you want to take them.
I say this because two and a half years ago we learned that my husband had cancer and in October of 2009 he died. And because he was well liked by many in our large circle of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, there was a tremendous outpouring of support and sympathy from the Michiana community. But at times this outpouring became almost too much for us to bear, for every time we went to the grocery store for months afterwards, even as recently as last month, we would run into people who hadn’t seen us since he died and who were eager to express their sympathy. This may sound cold, but we had been living with the illness and death for so long, and often we would run into two, three, four people we knew at the grocery store who would, of course, want to know how we were doing, and we just didn’t have the energy to keep condoling every time we went out.
We craved normality and a break from our sadness. We just wanted to go to the grocery store and have it be a fun outing. Instead, the face of almost everyone we ran into fell when they saw us. I so appreciated the friends who followed my lead when I chirped that we were doing great and who didn’t press us with a second, more serious, “But how are you all doing.” The middle of the produce section was not the place that I wanted to perform my dance of grief, describing my insomnia (or worse, my children’s insomnia) or the crushing pain that feels as if it is reducing my bones and organs to the ashes that my husband’s body has become when the enormity of his absence does sometimes compute for me and I feel utterly bereft.
Going out in public became particularly difficult for my children. To be reminded continually of their loss, to be asked constantly to condole and grieve, to have friends only be sad with them became extremely trying and they would often excuse themselves from these conversations.
We began complaining too much about this until we started reminding ourselves that this wouldn’t be happening if so many people did not truly care about us. This became my mantra to myself and my children until one day I finally realized that these friends were also grieving Scott’s loss, that they missed him and were working through their grief as well, a grief they had in common with us.
So, what to do? Be Ginger Rogers, beginning with my friend April’s advice: smile warmly and say “It’s good to see you,” or make some other positive acknowledgment of the person before you instead of the loss surrounding them. Save the grief talk for a private moment. or, better yet, write a note to your friend. My favorite notes, the ones I absolutely treasure, are those from people who described how evident Scott’s love was for me.
Sometime this past spring I read a letter in the newspaper from a woman who complained that no one in her community would talk to her about her husband’s death, not even when she would bring up the topic. I was immediately struck by the very opposite experience this woman was having. But then I realized that she had lost her husband twice, both in her home and in her community. I have the solace of knowing that if I need to talk about Scott or my pain, there are so many of you out there ready and willing to dance that dance with me. In high heels and backward.