There’s Nothing You Can Say to Make It Better, But I’d Still Appreciate the Call

Over the weekend, I had a conversation with someone I hadn’t heard from in a while. They wanted to know what they’d done to hurt my feelings. There was awkward silence after awkward silence while I tried to explain that it was actually what they hadn’t done, but that they weren’t the only ones who hadn’t done it. Since I lost my son last year, there has been this steady drifting away of people that I knew before the tragedy. ‘Drifting’ isn’t really the right word. It’s been more like an exodus.

Over the months, I’ve heard things like:

I thought you would call if you needed to talk.

I didn’t think you’d want to talk about it.

I was afraid that if you were okay, me asking how you were would make things worse.

I just don’t know what to say.

You just aren’t the same.

Okay, I get it. I know it’s awkward. I know there is nothing you can say that will make it better. It is precisely because no one should have to go through the death of their child and no one should have to understand that relationships become so complicated. And at least you aren’t saying something truly stupid like, “This too shall pass,” or “Time will make this easier” (as some people have). But here are my heartfelt responses to these five comments in hopes that it will help some others to navigate this slippery slope.

I thought you would call if you needed to talk.

As awkward as you feel, I also feel. I don’t want to burden anyone with my grief and I don’t want people to think that my grief is the only thing I’m clinging to now. On top of that, I often don’t know when I need to talk. I know that I’m heartbroken. I know that sometimes I remember the sound of my son’s laughter, and I know that sometimes I don’t and I have to remind myself in order to hold onto him. I know that you haven’t been through this and that you can’t possibly understand, and believe me, I know as well as you do that nothing you can say will make it better. That doesn’t mean I don’t need to talk. It just means that I, like you, don’t know what to say—and that knowing what to say doesn’t seem all that important right now.

I didn’t think you’d want to talk about it.

We used to talk about things like our plans for the weekend, the last movie we saw, the last place we visited, what we last fed our kids for dinner. Most of the time, I don’t want to talk about it. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to talk at all. In fact, a little normalcy and mundane would be a welcome break most days.

I was afraid that if you were okay, me asking how you were would make things worse.

Did you never ask me how I was before this happened? Asking me how I am is polite. Most of the time, I’ll lie to you anyway (it’s a half-lie really when I say, ‘I’m okay’). It’s a conversation starter. But it also lets me know that you care about me and my family and our wellbeing. That isn’t a bad thing—ever.

I just don’t know what to say.

I know. There is this general fear about saying ‘the wrong thing.’ Here’s a short list of the things not to say, to make this a little easier for you:

Everything happens for a reason. (So what?)

It’s all in God’s plan. (Again, so what?)

You’ll see him again in Heaven. (That doesn’t help me now.)

This too shall pass. (No it won’t.)

It will get easier. (No it won’t. Trust me, I’ve looked this one up.)

Be thankful for all of the good things you have in your life. (I am: the fact that I am heartbroken and pissed off doesn’t mean that I’m not grateful for positive things. It means I am somewhat normal.)

You have to go on. (Duh.)

You just aren’t the same.

No, I’m not. And I never will be again. Just like I wasn’t the same after the birth of each of my children and I wasn’t the same after I got married and I wasn’t the same after I went to college. The good things that happen in our lives change us forever. So do the bad things. But they don’t change us entirely and completely. At my core, I am still the person that I have been for years. True, I am less patient right now. I am a bit self-consumed and it’s hard for me to focus on things sometimes. Remember the last time something happened that really tore you apart? How patient do you think you were? Remember the last really stressful but positive thing that happened to you? I know plenty of people that are downright nasty during the two weeks before their wedding. No one blinks an eye at that. No one stops calling because so-and-so got antsy about the bridesmaid’s dress.

If you want me to be the same forever, maybe it’s better if you don’t call. But if you think you can accept the idea that humans are, by their very nature, constantly evolving organisms, I’ll still be here.

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11 thoughts on “There’s Nothing You Can Say to Make It Better, But I’d Still Appreciate the Call

    • Claudia, I cannot express what it has meant to have people like you talking with me through this period of my life. I find it a little strange that the Internet has become this sort of informal support group for me. Thoughts always with you.

    • They have link hounds at HuffPost? I honestly hadn’t even considered that this might be posted anywhere but this blog. And yet…more views than any post I’ve ever put up in fewer hours. Maybe this needs a wider audience. Thank you for the idea, Chris.

  1. After the most hideous part of my life (years ago) I didn’t want to talk to anyone for any reason whatsoever. That feeling persisted for several years. I hid inside myself and called no one. When people called, I tried to hang up or get off the phone as quickly as possible. I have/had no idea how other people handle or deal with tragedy, but I’m guilty of assuming that others deal with it like I do. In reality, I never will truly understand what you’ve been through. I’m sorry so many people fled your friendship. I know we never talked regularly even before you lost Z, but I still count you as my friend. I think of you at odd times, most especially when I catch sight of the key you gave me several years ago (it says wisdom). Maybe someday I will actually live up to the potential of that gift. You are in my thoughts. Hugs.

    • Chrissie, you live up to it every day. Truly. I’ve also been guilty of trying to avoid interaction. In truth, I think that’s a good part of the reason that people should reach out and keep reaching out when people they care about go through a tragedy. But yes, different people deal differently. This year, my husband floundered for days. I knew something was up, but thought he was just stressed as we were coming on the one year mark. Finally he takes a deep breath and says, “I need to know – how do you want me to acknowledge Mother’s Day?” Sometimes we just have to ask, “What is that you need from me?” And you, my friend, have never failed to be a friend.

  2. I was guilty of this same thing myself, when a woman I knew lost her beautiful son, the same age as my own son. I avoided her. She must hate me, I thought, and I went the other way when I saw her coming. I’ll always be sorry for that. It was so cowardly.

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