When Patrick and I were preparing ourselves for our return to the realm of people after our bereavement leave, we came up with a script for whenever anyone would ask us the dreaded question, “How are you doing?”
It is a seemingly simple question with an almost impossible answer. How could we possibly capture something so broad and indescribable as the grief we feel for our sons in a way that would not force us to relive our pain every day with every curious person?
Our script went something like this –
“We have good days and bad days, as you can imagine. But overall, we are doing okay. How are you?”
Our script was short, sweet, yet honest. It acknowledged our pain, and vulnerably, it did not inflate our progress. Truthfully, we are not doing “well” and we are not “fine,” for obvious reasons. Yet, we are “okay,” and by sharing that simple truth, it seemed to be reassuring and satisfying enough for others.
By having some set words in mind, Patrick and I both felt empowered as we faced people again for the first time. With our lines all prepared in advance, we felt less afraid that we would be caught off guard, struggling and stumbling over our answers. These simple words of vulnerability and truth got us through those first few days and weeks with relative ease.
Yet, in these past few days, I have noticed that our script now has some holes.
The first problem has a relatively simple fix. Yesterday, through tears, I admitted to Patrick, “Today is a bad day.” Patrick stopped me there and profoundly reminded me,
“It is not wrong or weak to cry, or to feel sad, or to grieve. It is not bad. Do not place judgment on your grief and your pain. Today is a hard day. Not a bad day.”
I was so moved by the grace that Patrick extended to my grief. Our grief is not bad; it is hard. This simple reframing has dramatically transformed my own feelings towards those days when I cannot make it out of bed because the pain is just too unbearable, or to when I have to give in and simply let the waves of grief wash over me as I burst into tears, or to those moments when every baby or pregnant belly I see dissolves my armor and pierces my heart. These are not bad days, implying a sense of judgment on these moments as if they were weak or wrong.
No, instead, our script has changed to reflect the grace that we have given ourselves –
We have good days and we have
As I said, this problem was relatively easy. However, this week I have also encountered another issue with our script that still has no solution – what happens when people go off script?
For the first time this week, I encountered a question even harder than the dreaded, “How are you doing?” The moment came when I was working with a coworker that I do not know well. She had worked for our organization in the past, before I started, but she had since moved to per diem work, juggling a few extra shifts with us while also working full-time as a nurse. This week she started working with our organization again full-time.
For some background, my organization is small. There is just a dozen employees or so, making the group rather close-knit. I have been very open about our journey with them, and in an act of meaningful solidarity, almost everyone I work with attended the funeral for Ezra and Leo. My colleagues know our story, and they support us on our journey.
On this day, however, my somewhat new colleague said something that I had not yet had to encounter, something so off-script that I still have no adequate answer. With a chipper tone, she innocently asked –
“I haven’t seen you in awhile! How have you been?”
I froze. I had assumed that someone had told her, that someone had warned her about all that I had been through or had explained why I had been away for all of this time. But it was painfully obvious that she either did not know or that, even worse, she forgot.
Grasping for words, I desperately wondered, what do I say? How in the world can I sum up these past few months and all that we have been through in some simple words? How do I describe the fear I felt as I so nearly died? How do I tell her that my sons, my beloved and so desperately wanted baby boys, were born before they ever even had a chance to live? How do I describe this indescribable grief? How do I tell her that I am a different person than she knew before? How can I possibly capture in words this new sense of overwhelming gratitude and purpose that I now feel, this desire to live my life to the fullest in every possible way because it was so nearly lost?
In the end, I decided that I did not feel ready to share any of this with her in that moment. Someone will tell her, I thought. But right now, I decided, that someone cannot be me.
So instead, I vaguely said,
“I am doing okay. How are you?”
I am still unsatisfied with my answer. It felt inadequate and small, compared with the magnitude of all that we have endured. With our quest to be open with others about our journey, this closed and vague answer felt inauthentic or even dishonest. It was true – I am indeed doing okay – but this truth was inadequately incomplete.
Still, though, I can think of no better answer than this in that moment. Often, when people ask how you are doing, they are not looking for a real answer. It is just a greeting, a shallow attempt at small talk said with the expectation of a shallow answer. For example, I remember being stunned and caught off guard when I asked the cashier at the Dollar Tree how she was doing, and in response, she then embarked on a long soliloquy about every life struggle that she was currently facing.
Telling others about our pain, when they do not already know about it, sucks all of the air out of the room. It is hard for us to relive, and it is awkward for others who were unaware. I am aware that it may be just as impossible to respond to us as it is for us to find this seemingly impossible answer.
Yet, I am also painfully aware that Patrick and I are going to be increasingly faced with simple questions like these that have impossible answers. More and more people that we encounter will not know our story.
Though I often feel like I am wearing a scarlet letter announcing my grief to the world, this moment with my colleague was a helpful reminder that it is actually invisible. I was reminded of a quote that I love, which has often served as a great motivator in my life but that I now understand in a more profound way –
Life is complicated. And life can sometimes be too complicated for easy answers to seemingly simple questions.
I feel this way whenever people ask me where I am from – I answer that I moved here from Louisville, Kentucky. But if they press further, I have to explain how I have lived in 10 different states throughout my short lifetime. It’s complicated.
I feel this way when people ask me how many nieces and nephews I have – I have a niece and nephew from my sister-in-law that I am now happily related to through marriage. But I also have a beloved niece whom my sister placed for adoption when she was born. We remain remarkably close with her adoptive family, but I have only seen her in person a handful of times in my life. It’s complicated.
And, most dreaded of all, I know that I will feel this way when strangers will one day ask us the most complicated and impossible question –
“How many children do you have?”
I honestly do not know how I will respond. There is no script that I have deemed adequate enough, no words true enough.
It pains me to deny Ezra and Leo’s existence, as if they did not change me forever, as if they did not shape and touch this world with their presence, as if they are not in my heart or in my thoughts through every moment of every day. They transformed me into a mother and Patrick into a father the moment they were born. They filled us with that indescribable love that parents describe, from the moment we held them. With the fierce determination of a mother, I fought for them, even to the brink of death. I entered a hell of pain and anguish for them, hoping beyond hope that my battle and my sacrifice would spare them pain. I would have given my life for them if I could.
Of course, they are our children.
Yet, a stranger is not asking about any of this. They want to know if we have children at home. They are passing the time, making small talk. They are not looking to enter into the depths of our love and our pain.
The truth is just too complicated for a simple answer…
As a quick note of gratitude –
I have been overwhelmingly grateful for those who have taken seriously the lessons that I shared from Sheryl Sandberg in a previous post, How Not to Say the Wrong Thing. For those who missed it, she suggests that instead of asking a grieving person how they are doing, you should instead say, “How are you doing today?” The emphasis on the word today acknowledges that you are aware of the person’s pain, you know that they are likely not doing well, but nevertheless, you still care and want to check in to see how they are feeling and coping.
For those who have learned this lesson, I have loved and appreciated it. I have noticed a little gleam of pride in your eye and the little extra emphasis that you place on the word “today,” knowing that you have read the blog and that you are trying to support us in the ways that we need.
3 thoughts on “Going Off-Script”
My response to people who have asked how many nieces and nephews I have is that I have one living nephew and two angel nieces. It answers the question honestly, without getting into the whole story. It honors the existence of Grace and Jasmine who remain in my heart. It’s hard when it’s complicated.
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I love you and Patrick and Ezra and Leo. Thank you for sharing your story as it unfolds. I have many awkward griefs that have become blessings. Depending on the nature of my relationship with my interlocutor and our conversation’s context, I am by varying degrees, frank, deflecting, or even editorializing, bending the truth so as to make it digestible in blander, smaller bites. A mindfulness writer said kindness is honoring our vulnerability as well as that of others. I have seen my limited grasp of Jesus’ way as sometimes holding myself to an unrealistic standard of raw transparency similar to the dynamic you describe. I also love Patrick’s words of emotional grace. I suspect pioneer Scandinavians (my background) and Dutch to be rather stoic. Dysfunctional secrets in my family have also made it hard to develop elastic boundaries that serve both authenticity and gentleness. Hugs to you and your friends and family.
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Bless you for your witness to complicated truths. Discerning what is small talk from what may go deeper is a gift. Your insights extend grace to my grief, even as it mingles with joy.