Perplexity of Responding to Condolences

bottled-up feelings

Several days a week a story from Narratively, an online magazine with the mission to “publish untold human stories that surprise, delight and captivate readers,” appears in my email box. Most days, I skim through the offering and move on to other emails. Last week, however, one of their stories stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t get past it because it spoke so directly to feelings I had bottled up for such a long time.

responding to sympathy

The story, Jill Deasy’s “The AfterDeath,” had originally been published in Creative Fiction’s 73rd issue. The piece had won the Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest in 2019 and earned a spot on the Best American Essays Notable list. 

Drawn to the story by the words, “Reeling from the loss of their 7-year-old,” I avidly read to the end because Jill so accurately articulated an aspect of grief, that I still struggle with today, seventeen years after Johnny died and nine years after we lost Kristy. Much of what she had to say about coping with the loss of her son resonated with me. What struck the most familiar chord, however, was the struggle to respond to the reaction of others when they learn of your unbelievable tragedy.

cardboard words

In the immediate aftermath of their death, the usual limpid replies to the standard condolences worked: “Thank you for your kindness.” “It means a lot that you are here.” “I know you’ll miss him, too.”

These are cardboard words, borrowed from Hallmark, because their death had left us without accurate words to express how we felt. The deepest part of us knew condolences were totally useless. Way more emotional than usual, the logical part of our brains struggled to make sense of things. We were simply too distracted to consider how to respond well to sympathy. But to point that out to those who offered it would not have made us any less distraught. Instead, it would surely have made the comforters feel worse when they already felt inadequate.

fragile facade

So, I put up a brave front, smiled a lot, gave a lot of hugs, and wrote a hundred thank-you notes. After Johnny died, life went on. Kristy still needed care. My teaching obligations remained in place. Behind that façade, however, I slowly disintegrated for three years until I totally fell apart. At which point I descended into a bleak, black year of fear, anxiety, and depression. That God and the angels here on earth pulled me out of that hole still feels like a miracle. Every day, I rejoice I am no longer afraid to live within my own skin, that most of the time I can believe I did the best I could for my children.

extended condolences

But I have not yet escaped the trap of needing to respond to condolences, and I am no better at it now than I was in the bitter months following the death of first my son, then my daughter. These condolences still come because we left behind our home of fifty years and moved across the country. Here in Portland, we have made many new friends. With new friends come fresh revelations. Inevitably comes the question, “How many children do you have?”

I’ve been tempted to lie and say, “Two grown daughters, one lives here in Portland, the other one lives in Boston.” But that would be a betrayal of all that Kristy and Johnny brought to our lives even though it would mean I wouldn’t have to face the awkwardness that always follows the words, “We had four children; two of them have passed away.” These are the moments when Jilly Deasy’s story most profoundly resonates with me. She writes,

rare & foreign experience

I wondered how she would react to our story. I never knew what to expect. Sometimes, people would break down and pull me into their arms. Others would stand silent and face the floor, speechless. And there were some who smiled too much. Each encounter reflected my new reality — that around here, my loss was rare, an experience foreign to others. There was no rehearsed etiquette, no guidelines for acknowledging such misfortune. My presence triggered floundering reactions, and I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious in the face of other people’s discomfort.

What Jill and I know is that although we cannot measure grief or compare ours to that of anyone else, many people hold losing a child to be a deeper loss than many others. For this reason, telling someone for the first time that two of your children have died leaves them tongue-tied. Whatever can they say? Most often, because they don’t know me that well and never knew my children, they mumbled, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

what’s enough?

I can see they know it’s not enough, but I feel awful for putting a new acquaintance in a place of feeling inadequate. I murmur, “Thank you,” when I want to say, “Please, no, it’s okay. Let’s just not talk about it.” But many feel compelled to ask, “What happened?” Then, the conversation takes a turn down a dark road with me finally insisting, “They were wonderful children. We were lucky to have them as long as we did.”

It’s harder if they respond with a story of a similar loss in their own family. Now, I’m the one who doesn’t know what to say, and I believe I really should. I’ve been there after all. I ought to have the vocabulary to comfort them. But I don’t because grief is so individual, you can’t get inside another’s mourning.

reciprocal condolence

I take some comfort in realizing that no one escapes a time of grief. So, even though I might not articulate my gratitude at the moment, I know I can show my thanks by being there when others lose someone that they care for.

It is important for everyone to understand that sympathy is still valued, even if it may be inadequate. At the time Kristy died, I felt less alone in my grief and found better ways to cope. David Kessler, Author, of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief”, suggests a “Rule of 3: Support them three daysthree weeks, and three months after the funeral.”

ongoing witness

What Dr. Kessler means, I believe, is that support needs to be ongoing because grief is. The words and gestures that support us are different at distinct moments in our grieving. Right now, what helps me process my loss best is the hours my writing groups and my writing coach are giving me as I create a memoir to witness the lives of my children.

A last summer at Belden

“For no soul can ever be replaced, and death claims a beauty and a magnificence that will always be missed.”
― Jocelyn Soriano, In Your Hour Of Grief: When Mourning the Death of a Loved One

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Please let me know if you enjoyed this read and what about it caught your attention. Thanks, Jule