My son reads us the headlines aloud from the CNN ticker that updates every few minutes.
“There’s a guy they’re calling the Ghost of Kyiv. He shot down six fighter jets.”
I understand why this Ghost has captured my son’s (and the world’s) imagination. Like Snoopy’s need to fight the Red Baron, there is a hunger for hope to conquer evil. Or at least to take a swing at it. Most of us feel helpless here on the ground.
He says that folks are not sure if the Ghost is real, “or if he is an urban legend the people of Ukraine need right now.” Real or not, Twitter users are cheering the real downing of the Russian planes and helicopters. I cannot cheer, though, reflexively thinking of the mothers of those Russian pilots, whose dead bodies are not myths. Who are victims of Putin, too.
He pipes up with another horror story from the news ticker. “On Snake Island, a tiny island, eighty Ukrainian soldiers were surrounded by Russian warships. The warships told them to surrender or die.” They did not surrender.
How can this be happening? How can this carnage be real? How can missiles fall and tanks roll while I am ensconced with my family on a weekend trip to the snow, planned when the strangest thing happening in the world was Covid?
“Go to Google Earth,” I say. I need to see our planet looking like a big blue marble, insignificant, with no borders drawn on its curves and swirls.
I cannot stop madmen from starting wars. (No one can, apparently.) So I try to locate the balance between sorrow, empathy and gratitude, to allow myself to enjoy the rare gift of a conversation with my son while we traipse through fresh snow. For the beauty around us, as fragile and as temporary, as it may be.
My father’s father was born in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1917 before the Soviet Union existed. He died in 2000 after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
“Go back to the view of Earth from space,” I urge. “See if you can find us.”
Last night I got stuck in that thin layer beneath consciousness, running through lists and worries. A single consolation prize — an idea for an essay. I did not get up in the dark, pilfer a pen from the mess on my window seat, and tiptoe to the bathroom where I could turn on a light without waking Christopher to write the opening sentence that was speaking itself, as I sometimes do. Sleep might be on its way, and I did not want to scare it off. I had a feeling that this one would stay with me until morning, unlike most nighttime whispers.
I would remember to call it “Welcome,” I told myself, and it would connect two stories: one about welcoming Maria home for Thanksgiving, her first visit after a year and a half; and one about finally welcoming an asylum-seeking family from El Salvador into America. I would write about chalk drawing in rainbow colors with my six-year-old neighbor Winnie, Maria’s former pre-school student, who calls me “Maria’s mom” because that is how Maria introduced me and she accepted it as an uncontroversial truth. And I would write about the asylum hearing that finally happened the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the day Maria arrived home.
Back in June, when the hearing was supposed to have happened, I practiced every question to ask on direct and re-direct as I coasted over pre-traffic freeways on my way to court. I expelled all my anxious fumes back then, and this time my nerves were less ratcheted. I felt confident. Ready. My clients were prepared. I knew where to park. I knew which of the several government buildings housed the court, and on which floor the courtroom was. All these knowns added to my sense of ease and mastery, my sense of control.
Of course, I knew anything could happen. I told myself to expect the unexpected. For sure something would go sideways.
While I drove to court, Maria’s name and number lit up my phone. She wished me good luck and said her cousin would be taking her to the airport soon. We would hopefully have something to celebrate that night.
In the courtroom, we faced a raised “bench” where the judge would sit, a desk for the interpreter, and two rectangular tables, one for the government and one for my clients and me. Ours was set with two pairs of headphones for them to listen to the interpreter and two microphones for us to speak into. Their four daughters, ages 6, 12, 13, and 19, waited in the hallway so as not to be exposed to their parents’ testimony about why they fled their home — the multiple death threats from gangs because the father was a police officer. On the right, an empty table where the government attorney should be. The judge called our case, then dialed a conference line.
The government attorney’s voice materialized. Present by phone, a Covid option.
We began. And the sideways detour arrived: the judge asked if we could skip my direct exam (all those questions I had practiced!). “In light of the voluminous and detailed record” I had submitted – hundreds of pages including my clients’ written testimony, psychological evaluations to prove their trauma, personal references, police reports corroborating their persecution, expert government reports and news stories – “could we proceed to any clarifying cross-examination, and then any redirect, if necessary?” I understood that we had made our case. I agreed to skip direct, sparing my clients the rehash of their trauma.
The government attorney launched into his cross-examination, something he had not expected to do for a couple hours. He began with the husband, pushing him as to why he did not “do more” to get the police to investigate the death threats against him and his family. The lawyer’s tone grew increasingly hostile as he warmed up. Besides making the police reports, what else did you do? What else?What else? My client held his ground, explaining the steps he had personally taken to protect his family when the police would do nothing. Reinforced bars on the home. Extra ammunition in his gun. Sleepless nights watching out windows. Pulling his kids out of school to keep them safe at home.
Finally, his composure broke and his wife sobbed as the memories of her family’s danger flooded her. I interjected once. After forty minutes, the judge stopped his questioning. “You cannot see their demeanor,” she said to the disembodied government voice, “but they are…affected.” A weak word, I thought, to communicate to the official who could not see his prey, that they were wounded, distraught. He finally understood the outcome as much as I did. When the judge asked, he said the government would defer to the court’s decision (i.e. he would relinquish his right to appeal if she granted them asylum).
Under this circumstance, the judge then asked me if I needed to ask any questions on redirect. It was apparent from her expression that she did not need any more information.
“No re-direct, your Honor.”
The judge indicated that I should go get the daughters. The detour had found its conclusion. I knew in my gut good news was coming.
The girls flowed into the room and sat together, four in a row behind their parents.
The judge looked into my clients’ eyes, and spoke slowly enough for the interpreter to state without a stumble:
I find the Respondent to be credible.
I find that he has suffered past persecution
And has a well-founded fear of future persecution
Based on his political opinion.
A grant of asylum is merited.
Welcome. I do not know if the gasp I felt at the ridgeline of my heart is audible in the recorded transcript.
We took a photograph in the courtroom after the judge left, the mother telling her eldest daughter to be sure she got the flag in it. I turned to see an American flag standing at attention that I had not noticed the whole time we had sat facing it.
Six days later, my family and theirs met for a picnic celebration at the park. Emmett taught the dad to throw an American football. Christopher entertained the six-year-old with his unique antics. Maria told the teen girls and their mom about her path from asylee to Legal Permanent Resident. The 13-year-old daughter interrupted to ask Maria, Wait, so how are you related to these people?
“Son mis padres,” she answered with a smile. Unlike little Winnie next door, who had taken our relationship at face value, this teenager’s face twisted into a universal expression of, what in the hell are you talking about? Maria laughed and added an explanation. We are her extra parents.
So yes, these are the things I wanted to write about this morning, about welcoming someone home with a gorgeous sign made of chalk and love, and of welcoming a family with sandwiches and football into our country’s safe harbor.
But my story turned sideways this morning when my high schooler texted at 9:40 a.m.
Hey guys, apparently there’s a rumor of a kid with a gun that might be on campus.
It’s probably BS but about half the student body left.
Oh hold up
They found the kid
He had a gun
He was tackled
I have a Spanish quiz
But I think I’ll leave just in case.
Any day can go sideways.
My morning drowned in fielding texts from him, talking to him to hear he was safe, texts from other parents, replying in a daze, chasing down more rumors:
They were locked down.
They were not “on lockdown” but they were locked in, no one allowed in or out.
They were not locked in, they were just processing departures slowly due to demand.
Another local high school had been threatened and kids had fled it, too.
The school sent a message to parents after 11 am, long after the exodus of our children: There were no “credible threats” to campus. There had been rumors among students about threatening social media posts. All information has been reported to LAPD, which continues to investigate and monitor. Extra security had been requested as a precautionary measure.
So those texts from my son? Pure rumors. No kid, no gun, no tackle. But there had been enough concern that the school had requested “precautionary measures.” Was there a real threat, or were they being (thankfully) responsible in light of last week’s abhorrent breach of duty in Michigan?
The school had left us without any information. My son and his peers were left to decide whether to stay put or flee. I had no information to help guide him. What was their conversation as hordes of students flooded out the gates? Did they wonder if their teachers would let them make up tests and quizzes? Did they wonder what might be in the backpack of the kids leaving with them?
My son’s voice was light when we spoke soon after. He was with friends, going to one of the girl’s houses. A free pass for a day. I was taking this harder than he was, at least that was what it seemed. Who is to say? Maybe he walks around in a ball of anxiety because this could happen any day.
I left the house to take a walk and I found myself across from the school. A bell rang and kids materialized in the quad and the paths. Easy targets. One local news station had set up a camera on a corner, pointed at the school as if to capture a moment no one wanted to happen but would be a great scoop if it did, fellas! I kept walking, a stray thought that I could take a bullet for my chosen path. When I got to the bluffs, I sat on a bench and cried, though not enough to release all my clenched fear. Maybe the body needs to hold some of it to remain alert.
My client stood at the window of his house while his family slept, looking out for danger, locked down in his house waiting for bad guys to come. What else did you do to protect your family? What else?
What do we do in the face of this constant threat to our children? We text them, Be safe, Don’t leave the classroom. Or Do leave. Trust your gut. Forget the quiz. Nothing matters. We are scared for our kids. We are tired. At the end of the day, he went back to school for a play rehearsal. I let him. There had been no real threat, after all. Just rumors. What about tomorrow?
She told me that the sea otter who followed her was her dead daughter.
We sat across from each other at a square wood dining table with our half-eaten meals between us, ice melting in sturdy glasses, efficient neighborhood waitress pausing to refill then leave us alone. We kept eating, pressing our forks into salads, or grain bowls, or omelets — that particular I do not remember. What I remember is her matter-of-fact-ness and her certainty. I filled in the vision she painted – the otter swimming behind her canoe, watching her, keeping pace — with details from my own memories of a different watery place decades before — the slant of sun powering through thick bayou treetops, bouncing off the water and turning it green. A boat and oars. Rippling water. Moving through shade and light.
I remember thinking as I listened to her – this mom, this survivor – why not? who am I to be certain of a world where that cannot be true?There are mysteries, after all — Maybe God, and maybe Not. I was no fundamentalist, either way. I accompanied her to consider the possibility, to Maybe.
Seven years later, having come close to more deaths and companioned more grief, I circle back to that conversation, to the vivid image of the otter swimming behind her mother, not so close as to touch her, but close enough to be seen and known. I circle back to that restaurant, to the mother describing the moment, and to then-me who received her memory. And I change what I knew and understood to be true: of course that was her daughter, gliding through water dark with life, bracing and cool.
Einstein said, “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed,” but it takes me a while to catch on. An orange butterfly followed me for a mile before I recognized her and gasped hello.
My word of the week is sweetbitter*– not really a word, but it should be (like these non-words and these). More apt than bittersweet, “sweetbitter” places the joyful before the sorrow.
We are in Pennsylvania for a yartzheit, a year since my father-in-law died. How can it be a year already since the world stopped, a harbinger of the whole world stopping as if in sympathy? Come Wednesday, we will go to the cemetery and face head-on the abject missing of someone so loved, so central. Come Wednesday, there will be the output of tears, reckoning with what was lost.
But before that there is snow (a thrilling gift to California boys who have been watching the weather reports and praying for this for weeks). There are borrowed sleds and a hill. There are snowballs and dogs romping. There is the ridiculous cake Aunt Jessica created — sweet with some bitter chocolate — to celebrate two January birthdays weeks gone by, because life is for celebrating even belatedly.
We are here, we are together, and we are missing. An exquisite yearning.
Death always takes us by surprise. We are never ready. We bury our heads in living. But would you want it any other way? To be asking each morning, will this be the day? We live and play and we mourn and grieve.
To be clear, it matters that a year has gone by. We have passed through every season, every birthday, every holiday without him. Each painful. “Just wait,” Jessica warned Christopher on her birthday, the first without their father. In the first days and weeks and months, the bitter won out often.
Now, out in the snow, Christopher wears his dad’s jacket and pelts the boys with fists of powder, and runs away from their response. His sister and mom see the familiar jacket and think his father is here.
In the living, in his grandsons, in the dogs galloping over to join them, he is.
P.S. Full disclosure. I threw some snowballs, too.
* I am not the first to crave a word more sweet than bitter. “Sweetbitter” has been used by poets and podcasts and authors before me, to whom I offer thanks and credit.
Close your eyes and let the sound float around your mind. Comfort.
The word itself feels like something. Like the softest sweatpants you have been living in for months, and the fuzzy socks that keep the hard floor and the cool morning air at a cushioned distance. The couch you sink into after dinner with your belly full, blanket pulled over your knees, the sleepy dog coming to nestle against your hip, its head on your lap, your fingers combing fur. Comfort, as a thing, is tactile.
But the action, to comfort, is harder. How to give comfort? How to heal a dear one’s wounds?
When my father-in-law died almost one year ago, we were inexperienced in loss. I tried to drip words like a salve over my husband’s grief, but grief is a place too deep for words to reach. “Tell your wife you need a lot of hugs,” the grief counselor said. The act of comforting is tactile, too.
Yesterday my friend held a funeral for her father, and we gathered online to comfort her, to offer the solace of our virtual presence. We could not comfort with our touch, only our faces and the awareness that we were present. But we are adaptive, we humans, and I think over the past year of virtual connection we have learned to imagine that last comforting mile, to bridge the gap between screen and actual togetherness. To feel the effect of connection.
During the virtual funeral, the rabbi read a poem, “Epitaph,” by Merrit Malloy. Maybe you’ve heard it too, this year? The moment came when the rabbi recited these lines,
And when you need me, Put your arms Around anyone And give them What you need to give to me.
and I leaned against my husband and took his hand, knowing how deeply he wished he could hug his father.
Hugs may be hard to come by in these days of isolation, but there is some comfort to be found in other places: in the sound of a friend’s voice on the phone, much richer than a text. In sorting through old photographs that spur buried memories of your babies’ smiles, a trip with friends, a dance floor moment resurrected. There is some comfort to be be found in playing the song that reminds you of your first kiss, or in cooking the meal your loved one loved best.
There is some comfort to be found in sitting quietly, intentionally, and recalling the of sensation of loving and being loved. In knowing that, although we cannot touch their love, we can feel it.
May we find the comfort we need, and be the comfort for others.
The complete poem is lovely, so I’ll share it here.
Epitaph, by Merrit Malloy
When I die Give what’s left of me away To children And old men that wait to die. And if you need to cry, Cry for your brother Walking the street beside you. And when you need me, Put your arms Around anyone And give them What you need to give to me.
I want to leave you something, Something better Than words Or sounds.
Look for me In the people I’ve known Or loved, And if you cannot give me away, At least let me live on your eyes And not on your mind.
You can love me most By letting Hands touch hands, By letting Bodies touch bodies, And by letting go Of children That need to be free.
Love doesn’t die, People do. So, when all that’s left of me Is love, Give me away.
I hear my grandmother’s voice almost daily. And some days multiple times.
This day I am standing at the kitchen counter on a winter Sunday, just past noon. She is not yet two months gone.
I’m in my bathrobe, showered, after my ritual Sunday cardio-funk dance class. Dance class is usually good medicine. I usually feel happy with the first bar of music blasting from the speakers, the first stretch, the beginning of movement, and downright exultant by the last breathless bow. But not today. Today it didn’t work. I am a little depressed.
I am at the kitchen counter, and I have just sliced a mango into a white bowl with a tiny chip at its rim. When did I get these? Post-engagement, pre-marriage? Twenty-plus years? I used to remember details like these. I have cut open a pomegranate and sprinkled pomegranate seeds onto the mango. It is beautiful, orange and red. I pierce the fruit with a silver-plated fork embossed with an elaborate script H. H for Heisen, for Selma & Aaron, my husband’s grandparents. I rescued them from a hidden box of silver last week, rather than let them continue to sit, tarnished and untouched.
I take a bite of my fruit, and it is a sweetness like no sugar, no cookie, no cake any human could make. A ripe mango is proof of divinity, if nothing else. The pomegranate seeds burst with juice, and yet more sweetness. I give gratitude for this deliciousness. I congratulate myself for buying them, for not forgetting about them until they are brown, for not being too lazy this time to cut into the pomegranate and confront its greedy, intricate design, trying to keep its seeds prisoner.
And I think, how can anyone be depressed eating mango and pomegranate, on a sunny winter afternoon, while wearing a bathrobe? It can’t be sustained.
And then, like a reward, I hear my grandmother’s voice. As I slip my fork again and again into the chipped white bowl, putting bite after bite of sweetness into my mouth, my redheaded guardian extols the health benefits of my snack in her distinctive style: “Pomegranates have lots of antioxidants, they are SO GOOD FOR YOU!” It’s a voice that could be saying, “You just won tickets to Disneyland!” This is a celebration.
I exhale, and try to release the dregs of whatever has its teeth in me. It’s always the little things that bring me back. I wrap my soft robe tightly around me. I appreciate the counters I’ve decluttered and wiped clean, my transparent effort to bring similar order to my mind and soul, and I nod to myself, thinking, “Grandma, you are so right.”
The car clock says 7am as I turn right on PCH, Aaron in the passenger seat next to me, on our way to school. We are tired from sleeplessness related to this unconscionable heat wave, and to Grandma Lilli dying.
He says, “I don’t know why I haven’t really cried since the first night,” the first night being Sunday, October 22, when he walked into my bedroom to say he couldn’t sleep because he kept thinking about Grandma Lilli, his great-grandmother. We had been with her earlier that day, and we knew she was on the threshold of death. He did not yet know that I had just been on the phone with my sister Marni, who had told me that she was now gone.
When I told him, he cried out and crumpled onto my bed. I put down my journal and pen (once again Lilli was acting as my muse), and we talked about life, and about death, this experience bringing mortality to his mind.
“I can’t believe I’m already 16,” he said. “It goes so fast.”
I know, I said. I told him that when I felt panicky like that, I ran through the chapters of my life – way back to pre-school, then little kid, pre-teen, high school…and on and on. “So many chapters and each so full… all before I even met Daddy!” We did the same for him. I wanted him to feel how much a life could hold, even one just 16 years long.
We turn onto Topanga, the temperature deceptively, temporarily cool, the day’s promised heat still to come. “There’s no right or wrong way to feel,” I tell him. I am telling myself, too.
My sorrow has been less intense than I expected it would be. I wonder aloud about the reasons for that: Gratitude for her long life, I think, and for its quality. Her recipe: show up with joy and enthusiasm; believe you can do anything; see miracles everywhere; laugh a lot, and love unabashedly, and loudly. One tiny example of “love unabashedly, and loudly”: Every time I called her, and said, “Hi, Grandma, it’s Laura,” I’d receive an effusive, “LAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUURRRRRAAAAAAAA!” in response, as if nothing better could have happened in the world at that moment than a phone call from me. (And I know she had the same, authentic response when any of her family called.)
“You reap what you sow,” I explained to a friend who marveled at our family’s devotion to Lilli when she learned that my sister, my cousin, and I each gladly spent a night in the hospital with her a couple months ago. Lilli planted the seeds of our devotion with her own.
So I tell Aaron, a basketball player, my theory about why my sorrow is tempered: “We left it all on the court with her.” The showing up with love for birthdays, graduations, his basketball and baseball games, his brother’s MMA classes, his cousins’ plays and dances; the enjoyment; the I love you’s. We left little room for regret, and maybe regret is where sorrow lives.
Aaron is quiet, then adds his own sports-related observation. “I think Papa loves overtime and extra innings so much because it’s like a little bit of immortality.” My heart catches, thinking about my father, my son, their relationship as close as mine with my grandmother. My dad has much in common with his mother Lilli — the showing up, the love for his family, his youthful exuberance, his dogged pursuit of his favorite pasttime (for her dancing, for him football), long past the time many of his peers have set theirs aside. He always roots for overtime. More important than the outcome, even, is the chance for more of what he loves.
“I feel like all the time I had with her, my whole lifetime, was her overtime.” I think of my husband, whose own beloved, incredible grandmothers died, respectively, twenty years, and more than thirty years ago, way too soon, so much time left on the clock.
Oh my child, yes. With intense, outrageous, cheer-at-the-top-of-my-lungs gratitude for the miracle of Lilli Diamond’s overtime. All the while knowing with a touch of melancholy, that even overtime comes to its bittersweet end.
It may have been the glass of red wine with dinner. Or the 3-hour time change. Or my mother’s delicate snoring in the bed next to mine in our hotel, that kept me awake our first night in New York. Yet, as I pulled the pillow over my head, planning a Duane Reade earplugs run, I was grateful to be able to hear that sound, to sleep near my mother, still.
Our reason for being here: the Jewish Book Council (JBC) and its author networking conference, aka the “Pitchfest.” In those wakeful midnight hours, I ran over and over my two-minute pitch.
You get two minutes. Two minutes to summarize seven years of writing, revising, abandoning, and returning to a manuscript that represents your most personal ideas and emotions. You sit in a filled-to-capacity sanctuary (thinking everyone here wrote a book, too??), waiting for your turn to tell the savvy book festival planners from around the country why they must choose your book for their communities.And you pinch yourself because you’re one of the authors, and everyone in this room loves books as much as you do.
When it was my turn, I left my written notes on my chair, I looked out at the audience, remembered that they wanted me to nail it, and took a breath. I talked to them like I was talking to my mom, telling them about my labor of love. And instead of two minutes it happened during a single encapsulated, time-not-passing, bubble of a moment.
Here’s what I said:
One of the most beautiful commandments in our tradition is to take care of the stranger – the vulnerable and powerless. This always resonated with me, but even more so after I became a mom. I began to see everyone – even a homeless person on the sidewalk – as someone’s child. But like many people, I struggle with wanting to help and not knowing how.
In my novel Shelter Us, Sarah, a mother of two who is grieving the death of an infant, sees a young homeless mother and child, and she can’t stop thinking about them. Remembering her late mother’s many examples of caring for “the stranger,” moves her to reach beyond her comfort zone and try to help them.
Writing about Sarah’s journey allowed me to explore the difficult question of how we respond to the need we see every day. But even more, it was my way of wrestling with a mother’s universal fear that the worst could happen to her child. Sarah, who suffered that loss, sings a Hashkivenu prayer to her children at bedtime, asking for God’s sheltering arms to keep them safe. The song she sings, “Shelter Us,” I first heard at Jewish summer camp, and its primal yearning has stayed with me all these years.
Shelter Us raises some wonderful questions to explore together:
Who are today’s strangers and what are our responsibilities to them as Jews?
Can helping others heal our own wounds?
What are the values we want to pass to our children, and how do we communicate them?
In what ways did Torah study impact my thinking and writing?
How do we move beyond our fears, to savor the small, beautiful moments of parenthood that are all too fleeting?
And then it was the next author’s turn.
As soon as I sat down I was thinking of what I’d wished I’d said: This book has great blurbs by brilliant bestselling authors! Library Journal recommends it for book clubs! You’re gonna love it! You’re absolutely gonna love it!
But, like life, there are no do-overs. There are words you will wish you didn’t leave unsaid.
My mom is sitting behind me as I write these words to you, and she’s about to leave to spend a day in the city with cousins, while I go do more book stuff. “Mom,” I call out before she leaves. “I have to tell you something!” She stops, a look of concern floats across her face. And I try to tell her what she means to me.
Today as I stepped out of the shower, my mind turned, in that untraceable-to-first-thought, how-did-I-get-here way that minds work, to the subject of cremation.
If I could tell you why I was thinking about this, I would. But let’s just start here.
Would I be cremated? I asked myself. There are a couple considerations. First, there’s the afterlife. I mean, what if there is a there there, and what if we really do need all our parts — what happens if I’m all dust and gone? I wouldn’t have a hand or a forehead to smack it against, no mouth to say “Doh! Mistake!” I wonder, would I be able to get a loaner? Could pick a different body type? Could I be taller?
But if, as I suspect, there’s no need for the body once we’ve expired, what reason is there not to return to the cosmos all dust and ash? The only other reason I came up with was so that whoever’s left behind has a place to visit.
In my family, that kind of visiting does not happen. It’s not our thing. But boy do we remember. I think about my late grandparents often. I think about them when my son’s expression reminds me of my dad’s dad; or a word my mom says sounds just like her mom; or when a terrible joke with no punchline reminds me of my mom’s dad; I think of them at every Bar Mitzvah, Shabbat and Torah study when Kaddish is said.
And I think of them at anniversaries. Today is the fifteenth anniversary of my grandfather’s death, his Yartzheit. I was lucky to have him as long as I did. And though I do not visit the cemetery where he was buried, he visits me quite often.
Like today. I went to a dance class, and the teacher chose a campy, Vaudevillian routine. I thought, my grandfather would love this. Under the music, I said to myself and him, “This is for you, Grandpa.”
Then, I decided to say it louder. So often I live in my mind, not sharing the good thoughts I am having about others, whether it is how much I admire them, or how they have inspired me, or how beautiful or kind they are. Lately I’ve been trying not to keep those thoughts so private. Besides, since I’d already invoked his presence, I thought it would be polite to let my fellow dancers know someone was watching. So I shared what had been silently percolating in my brain, “Today is fifteen years since my grandfather died, and he would have loved this number.”
“What was his name?” a friend generously asked.
“This one’s for Al,” she said.
The teacher cued the music, turned up the volume, and shouted “Sell it!” It was stunningly easy to feel him there as we danced and hammed it up, with a kick line to bring it home.
I don’t have any answers about an afterlife, whether spirits roam or visit us, whether we will be able to come back and visit once we’re gone – believe what you want, I say – but I do know that for those 8 bars of 8, he was there with me.
I’m not trying to bum you out with all this grief business. But it’s life, right? And I didn’t quite finish what I wanted to share in the last post.
And that’s this: Sage advice for friends who want to help, but aren’t sure how.
I was a third of my way through the first draft of Shelter Us when I discovered/decided that protagonist Sarah Shaw, a mother of two boys, had had an infant who died. Up until then, she was just a woman struggling with an unnamed loneliness.
I decided to make Sarah virtually friendless. (Okay, I admit that part of this decision was connected to the fact that this first-time novelist wanted to juggle as few characters as possible. This may also explain why Sarah and her husband are only children, with one living parent each).
But a weightier part of the choice to make her friendless was my intuition that a mother who had lost an infant would lose friends, too. It was too easy to see living examples of this situation. I could look at myself to understand a person who, in the presence of great loss, did not know what to do or say, who shied away from facing another person’s pain directly.
While doing me the enormous favor of reading my manuscript, GriefHaven founder Susan Whitmore confirmed this phenomenon. When, in the story, a neighbor withdraws from Sarah, Susan wrote in the margins, “Sadly, this is so common. We lose friends – they think ‘it’ is contagious or it makes ‘them’ too sad to be around us. Another huge issue of anger and loss we deal with. It is very sad.”
Susan made sure that GriefHaven would not only offer resources to grieving parents, but to the friends wanting to support them (as well as these resources for children.).
Just “be” with the parent when they are grieving. Share your own feelings about the child’s death, such as, “My heart aches for you. I wish there were something I could do.” or “I care so much,” or “I miss Joey too. I remember him running down the street with his friends,” or “She will never be forgotten.” Those types of comments are real and come from your heart.
Also, just listen. Listen. Listen. Listen.
Also, cry with the parent. You don’t need to be stoic. Your tears will not upset the parent. Quite to the contrary, your tears show them that they are not alone. We often hear that crying with someone is healing for the parents and siblings. This also applies to grandparents and other family members.
As part of trying to help parents and siblings, avoid trying to help them see some kind of “silver lining” in their lives, such as pointing out all of the “blessings” the parents still have. For instance, you would want to avoid saying things like, “You have other beautiful children” or “At least you had her for seven years” or “She’s in a better place” or even “You need to be strong.” What is true strength anyway? We would say that it takes real strength to feel the pain, deal with it on a daily basis, and let it be expressed in whatever way works. That is true strength.
One more shout-out on this topic, then I’m done. The brilliant, funny, wise Judy Silk wrote a beautiful piece after her husband Dan died. She said, in a nutshell, “Please talk about him. Say his name.” As much as death is a part of life, we don’t really know what to do or say, what will help. So I am grateful for the wisdom, hard won, of two extraordinary humans, whose lives and words can shine a light down the darkened path we may all walk down one day.