Of course, at the beginning I cried. I cried a lot. My boss Matt was the first one to come to me (not quite true, Sandy was first but I sent her with the kids to my mom's while I dealt with the detectives and M.E.'s.) Matt came because I didn't really know what to do so I had texted him I wasn't coming to work on Monday. Then I texted him why. He came immediately. When he walked into the kitchen, he hugged me and I made noises that I thought only animals did, big, wailing sobs that I didn't know I could make, part coyote and part Orca and I think I probably ruined his clothing with my snot as he enveloped me in a huge protective hug. I had a few more of those cries but it happens very rarely now. I'll go days without crying and then it sneaks up on me, most recently in the shower Christmas day, after the presents were open and the breakfast eaten but before the rest of the relatives showed up for dinner. Sometimes, it's quieter crying. As we sat in Christmas Eve services, listening to the Mennonites sing Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, a single tear, or maybe two, leaked out as I remembered that Lori and I always got confused as to which parts we were supposed to sing and I'd end up singing with the women and she with the men.
But this isn't a post about Christmas, it's a post about how to talk to grieving people inspired by the spectacular job my former students are doing. Michaela wrote me from Egypt where she is on assignment and her message is worth quoting in full:
Dear Doc Sal—
I’ve been reading your blog posts—who knew the person who taught me to write history essays could make me cry from something other than his comments on my essays?—and I just wanted to add my condolences to the deluge. I didn’t think it was necessary and even felt as if it was an intrusion, considering how many friends of yours and Lori’s are currently reaching out. But I always think of that part in the Series of Unfortunate Events—how come “children’s” books are always so much helpful when it comes to death than adult books?—where Lemony Snicket says “it is a sad truth in life that when someone has lost a loved one, friends sometimes avoid the person, just when the presence of friends is most needed.” I doubt that’s happening much to you, but at least
Iwas doing it. I was hoping, before contacting you that I could come up with a really, REALLY good condolence message, one that would 1) prove the illusion of death 2) prove that any ending is simply the limitation of human perception 3) prove that God never takes something away without giving something back and 4) find quotes from people much smarter than myself in regards to human mortality to substantiate this (the only death poem I love is the Aeschylus one Bobby Kennedy quoted to the crowd when MLK got assassinated, and this poem didn’t even work since I’m pretty sure you’re wise enough already without Lori being dead.) After reading my letter, you would laugh in the face of human mortality, and your pain would be completely healed. Unfortunately, by the time I came up with this it’d probably be a little late, since you and I would both be dead. So instead, I’ll just say that even me, a constant but peripheral Doc Sal fan, even I had my life touched and made better by you and Lori’s love. As a divorce-child who’s read far too many books by bitter male writers, time travel seemed far more possible than the idea that you could love and respect someone that much, and build a family and a community around that love. I could just tell by the way you talked about her, even off-hand. So when I heard the news, I just… I don’t know, wanted to punch the universe in the crotch, it just seemed so unfair. But over the weeks, reading your posts, seeing people reach out, I realized I’d been seeing it the wrong way. It just seems so apparent, as an outsider, that that love didn’t disappear. You just built something so wonderful with Lori that even with Lori dying there’s so many people around you who care. So I still feel that I would be so lucky to have what you had, even though it was so much shorter than you would have wished. And yes, that still makes the universe my number one enemy—and if I ever find it’s crotch I WILL punch it—but I just know you and your kids, you’ll all be okay. I will strive to follow your example. You have the right idea, you read the right books and cared about the right people (namely: basically everyone.) You already know this, but like hell if it doesn’t feel good to hear things you already know once in a while. And you can hardly blame me, since you know everything, after all.
TL;DR: Good fucking job, and I wish you a wonderful Christmas—Go laugh in the universe’s face.
PS. You didn’t actually ever make me cry from a history essay comment (maybe because I could never actually read them) but I did once avoid you for weeks when you told me you wanted to ‘talk’ about my first essay.
So, that's one approach. I would like to say for the record, I, too, would like to punch the universe in the balls. The letter made me laugh, it made me feel better, and it flattered me. But hey, Michaela gets paid to write! the rest of us probably can't pull that off. So then there's plan B.
Plan B comes from another former student, Kat. Kat lost her mother when she was just a few months older than my daughter in a similarly stupid and tragic way. Kat, the siblings, Alex, Lindsey, and Grace, and Taylor are some of my former students who lost a parent at a young age. They've all turned out pretty great and they've been tremendous in reaching out to me to let me know my kids will be okay. Kat met me for coffee just before Christmas and told me the following story. It was just after her mom died and her friends were over basically pitying her. She walked outside to get some air when her older brother's best friend came outside and sat next to her. "This sucks," he said. "Yes," she said. "It does." And then they just sat. I'd been saying, "It sucks," quite a bit to people, along with "there are no words." (Generally, the latter, in response to folks who said, "I don't know what to say.) I think "This sucks," is pretty powerful. It accurately sums up the current condition and suggests a future possibility that doesn't suck, or at least sucks less. (Levels of suckitude are incremental, and are measured in owl licks like Tootsie pops. Two weeks ago, my suckitude level was 27 owl licks, but I'm currently at about 15 owl licks, but then again, I've been eating the Jon and Kira's chocolates someone gave me.) Anyway, "this sucks" is a safe bet to say to me, should I be on the verge of unleashing my newfound superpowers on you if we should happen to run into each other in the supermarket or movie theater. Other acceptable phrases include:
"You and your family are in my prayers/thoughts/koan."
"Happy Holidays!" (I'm a big New Year's guy, and there's also Three Kings' Day, and Tet's gotta be around the corner.)
"Have you heard the one about little Bobby on Christmas?"*Seriously, nobody will tell me a joke anymore. And I desperately need to laugh now. I used to laugh all the time. Now I'm worried I'll forget how. Leave your best joke in the comments so I don't.
*Little Bobby on Christmas is not a funny joke. It is an awful joke. It is the kind of joke that people throw things at you after you tell it and disinvite you from visiting their homes. Needless to say, it is one of my favorites.