Think. Before you say Nothing.

I have been lucky. My family is kind and uncomplicated. My in-laws, too. I didn’t suffer any over-blown drama with relatives, friends, or exes when my husband died. Just the rawness of people grieving. And much, much kindness from friends.

For the past 9 years, we have lived in a wonderful place, the soft, rolling, warm-hearted Midwest, salt of the earth people, indeed. I wouldn’t have wanted to be any other place during the past half year. This was our home. We would roam the ‘hood with our old dog, then with our new one, we knew people from many streets over, we paid attention to the details…changes in gardens, fences, families and pets.

Directly to our right, we have some of the most generous neighbors. They brought us food, checked in on my husband when he was ill, know our family members by name, and have continued to send over the occasional meal for me…trying to fatten up the skinny widow.

But I have some other neighbors…

across the way, the ones who have a peace flag flying…

…they saw my husband all summer, sitting out on the front deck, emaciated, pale, wearing pajamas, and hospital wristbands, dangly cables, medical tape. They saw him, losing his hair, losing his balance, losing his battle…their living room windows look directly out at our house. A clear view of it all, I am sure, but not a clear enough path, apparently, for them to cross the street and acknowledge his death.

Until yesterday.

I was getting my mail, neighbor was getting his, instead of ignoring me, per usual, he took some steps into the middle of the road and approached – most definitely crossing his comfort zone. I was taken aback.

I am so sorry we never said anything.

You heard about my husband? (up until then, I wasn’t going to assume)

Yes, and I am sorry we never said anything.

Thank you, I appreciate you coming over.

Some people just don’t know what to say. Or when to say it. I know it’s not easy. There are lists of things that you shouldn’t say, litanies of experiences conveyed about hurtful things that the “uninitiated” say or do. I’ve shrugged off plenty of stupid, thoughtless remarks. I’ve also carried the sting of some them until I was in a private place where I could lick my wounds.

But still, the most troubling and somehow upsetting to me have been the people who CHOSE to say NOTHING. And it is a choice. Yeah, it might be uncomfortable, or worrying. It is for me too. I am sitting in a little dinghy and most often do not have the right words for my fellow passengers, as we bob up and down in grief. Death, it’s a fucking downer. And our reactions to it, in many ways completely unique.

So let me just use this one post…as I really don’t want to complain, or act like I own the pity-party of all parties and can start telling everyone how to behave, but:

Say something. Anything. Even if the connecting path is a loose or undefined one, a co-worker, friend of friend, somewhat friendly neighbor but I can’t remember your name. Overcome your discomfort, if just for a moment, to acknowledge a loss. It’s just a moment in your day, but it’s a catalyst in mine. As the Einstein poster in my dorm room used to say, “Don’t worry about your problems with mathematics. I can assure you, mine are greater.”  Do I really need to do spell it out? I watched my husband die, our lives collapse. I am living in THE ZONE of unsettled unpredictable discomfort, and I have to overcome it every day. I didn’t get here by choice. But I get through it by choice. The thought of crossing the street makes your wool socks feel itchy? Suck it up. Be brave…one foot in front of the other.

Because “absence”, it defies its own definition, doesn’t it? It’s a “lack” of something, a void, a negative space, yet it’s the biggest elephant in the room. Sitting on my chest, waiting for me in bed, a hole—so wide and empty that it actually takes on a presence. Similarly, a “lack of action” communicates just as loudly as action, usually even louder. Am I making sense? I received many touching condolence cards, from people I wouldn’t have expected, and I appreciate all the kindness that came my way. So why do the few that were *not* sent seem to stand out? I’m not trying to focus on the “negative”, it’s the wiley nature of absence. If there is one thing I have learned, it’s that ignoring the elephant does not make it go away. It feeds the void.

The fact that my neighbor expressed his remorse, not about my loss, but about his own lack of action speaks for itself. It didn’t matter what he said. It mattered that he finally said something. The day after he took those wobbly steps toward my pain, and acknowledged my loss – my husband’s death, I woke up and was able to breathe just a little better. My steps just a little lighter. I could swear that big old elephant had shifted its weight.

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14 thoughts on “Think. Before you say Nothing.

  1. i hear you, sister. the acknowledgement is so important. no matter what. i don’t need you to know what to say, but i need you to acknowledge that this bomb hit my life, not act like nothing happened.

  2. About a month after my husband died, I did a big purge of my Facebook friends: anyone who hadn’t acknowledged his death got unfriended. It wasn’t necessarily rational, but it felt necessary at the time. Many got refriended after finally saying something; some still haven’t, 2 1/2 years later. I understand it’s difficult, but I also want the effort made. So sue me.

  3. Wow you know, I’m really glad that you wrote this post, speaking as someone from the position of not knowing what to say/whether to say something/whether it’s going to be totally the wrong thing and I just put my foot in my mouth! 😦 Thank you for saying that it’s better to say something (even if it might not be the perfect thing to say) rather than saying nothing. I try really hard to say the right things but honestly, I’m always really nervous! This post has helped to put me at ease, so thank you.

    • I need to be honest, that before I experienced death so closely, I felt the same way. I was very concerned about what to say to someone. And I now know, for a fact, that I said some of the *exact* “stupid” things that bereaved people complain about! I also did not send a card to the family when a friend of mine died. She had moved away, I didn’t have their address, I didn’t really know them…etc. etc. excuses, and I feel bad to this day. I don’t know that people can really be blamed, I just don’t think death/grieving are integrated or invited into our fast-paced, youth-focused, modern society. But I also see it as basic manners. Your neighbor dies….do you acknowledge it or ignore it? To me, that’s basic manners. And as the one whose life has been completely altered by a loss, silence is hurtful. But one of the most important things I read on a list of things about how to help someone who is grieving is this: “Thank you for being patient, for helping, for understanding. And remember in the days or years ahead, after your loss – I will understand, and I will come and be with you.”

      My loss has transformed me, and I will no longer be able to ignore someone else’s.

      • I have felt resentful about those people who didn’t come by, who didn’t even send a card. I thought they were my friends, or my husband’s friends. I have wanted to say something outlandish. To their “How are you?” I’d respond, “Steve died. Did you hear?”

        I also get the impression that people talk about me more than they talk to me. When someone makes awkward small talk I want to send them off with, “Now you can tell people that you saw me,” acknowledging that I am a subject of gossip–concerned gossip of course.

        Those are petty impulses that I have never acted upon. But I’m glad that I didn’t repress them, either. My fantasy one-liners allowed me to acknowledge my own pain and need. In the end, though, it wasn’t their help that I needed, and they were a false target of my simmering resentment. I try to have compassion for those people who let me down this year. And I so admire the people who stick by me, because it does take courage to approach and sit with the bereaved. It was courageous of your neighbor to cross the street. He must have been so ashamed.

        Like you, I failed to act properly in the past. I probably hurt people without knowing it. There’s nothing to do now but move ahead, to recognize the suffering of others, now that we know suffering, and to act in the face of it.

      • I agree, it was courageous for my neighbor to cross the street. And while I have also felt let down by others, in working through my feelings of abandonment and resentment, I also found my compassion for others deepening, which was not something I expected.

  4. This post really resonated with me. I had similar experiences. My husband’s death came more quickly – a month in the hospital that started as a short problem and just spiraled down and down and down – but there were similar issues with many so-called ‘friends’. I’ve been trying to write about this, but haven’t quite been able to do so yet. Like you, I have done a mental recalculation after observing who was there and who wasn’t. Especially hard to take were the people who he believed to be good friends who either completely disappeared. I understand that death can be frightening and disturbing, but, hell, we’re adults, and sometimes you just have to suck it up and do the right thing (kinda like how I keep showing up at work even on days when I have to spend time in the bathroom crying).

    I see so much of what I’m going through in your blog, and I know how healing and helpful writing is for me; I hope it’s the same for you.

  5. “I also found my compassion for others deepening, which was not something I expected”…

    me too. me too…a small portion of good in all the senselessness.

    I am so, so sorry for your loss.
    I am grateful you liked my blog, because now I can read yours and and be another witness to your loss, even in the anonymity of blogworld, as I like to call it.

    Thank you for being so open. I know it’s hard, but I also know it helps.

    michele

  6. Wonderful post. Thank you for expressing so eloquently what many of us have felt. Silence can definitely be shocking and painful. I found it truly eye opening the people who did and did not respond after my husband passed, and still others who cut off contact (and told me they were doing so), which was very unkind, no matter what the reason. I’m so happy your neighbor finally “manned up” and said something to you. May your family and friends (and beautiful writing) continue to help you heal.

  7. It was 13 months from the time my husband’s cancer was diagnosed until his death in May. My next door neighbor never once acknowledged him or his health. Never brought a meal. She once sent an email to “let me know if you need anything.” Have emptier words ever been uttered? The onus is then put upon me to tell her. Living next door there is no doubt she saw his decline, and finally the funeral home van come and remove his body, and the press of relatives arriving in the following days. I must say I was STUNNED at the luncheon following the funeral, which she did not attend, to find her in my dining room, with a plate of food. She actually said “I am flying out tomorrow but will be back in a week.” Needless to say, I have not seen her since. I just wanted to share this. I too was shocked by friends who have proven not to be, but humbled and in awe of many who have become people I would do anything for knowing now their true character as demonstrated since March of 2011. One last piece of advice for all. Do not take a LIVE plant to anyone who has lost a spouse. We can barely take care of ourselves and stay alive much less take care of another living thing, however beautiful that orchid may be.

  8. I don’t know how long I have been sitting here reading through all your writing. It is amazing. I have laughed and cried. I am so sorry I have not called. As you stated, it was for all the wrong reasons. I just didn’t know what to say. That is no excuse. I could have called you and said exactly that…Katja, I just don’t know what to say, but I am sorry and I love you!! Close to a year late, but I am telling you now. You are always in my thoughts and prayers. Thank you for sharing yourself in this writing. I will give you a call in the next few days.

    All my love,
    Mary

    P.S. Always remember that when you feel up to it, “I will never be too bushed to boogie with you”

  9. Amen, sister! I am continually astonished at the number of people who said absolutely nothing….but told me all about their lives. I often thought (not angrily, but in an astonished way), “What makes you think I care? I have no room in my thoughts/emotions/head/heart/life for anything else right now. I am consumed by this, and if you can’t see it, I don’t know how to tell you.” The number of people who said to me, “We didn’t think Dave was going to DIE!” also astonished me – I don’t know what the sentence, “My husband has a brain tumor” says to you, then. I also became aware that there are such different experiences with cancer – some are almost mild, and can be resolved, although they cause heartache and worry.Then there is CANCER, which comes upon you like a thunderbolt and wipes out your entire life in every aspect in a very short period of time. They are not the same experience at all.
    We all need to be more aware of others.

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