Writing from the Heart: Eating your grief

‘There are no words’ doesn’t mean there’s nothing to say.


“What was your grief food?” my friend Cindy says, as I am handing her the black bean soup I brought as my offering in what I know must be her darkest hour. Condolence calls are awkward at best. Cindy tells me she has three more bean soups on the porch. I see they are lined up like planes on a runway waiting for takeoff. “But mine has coconut and lime,” I whine. “And ginger,” I add, “so I hope I get moved to the front of the pack.” Actually, I don’t care where my soup ends up. I just wanted to make her laugh.

After a brief visit, where I chattered about the lousy March weather and the ugly refrigerator we were forced to just buy, I found myself doing what the French call “l’esprit de escalier,” literally translated “the spirit of the staircase,” meaning thinking of the perfect reply too late. “What was your grief food?” my friend had asked me. Did I not answer because I didn’t want to think of what food I ate when my son Dan died, and have to face my own grief? Or did I not want to face hers? Did she ask because she wanted to put me at ease because she knew we were now members of the same club, a club no one wants to belong to. And why, oh why, did I want to make her laugh?

It’s hard to drive while kicking yourself but I managed to do both. At the same time I was thinking, why didn’t I say, “I can’t even remember what I ate, what people brought. I can’t remember what nourished me. I can’t remember anything.” It was 12 years ago. Except one minute I was the mother of two sons and the next minute I was the mother of, well, ya’ see, there’s one of the interesting problems. When people say, “How many kids do you have?” should you say past tense or present tense? And really make them uncomfortable? Should you say, “I have two, but I lost one,” as if he’s wandering somewhere in aisle five at Cronig’s? How easy it is to divert and avert pain with a snappy wisecrack.

I should have said, “The wedding cookies, the round balls with pecans and powdered sugar.” But does that even qualify as my grief food? Maybe that’s revisionist history. Maybe it was chopped liver on Ritz crackers. Who knows?

What I do know is that as a culture, we are toddlers with how we deal with other people’s grief. And you would think since I went through it ,I’d be better at it.

My standard note over the years has included, “There are no words.”

Grief is one of those topics that has been written about over and over. There are as many articles about grief as there are people grieving. I recently read one in the Atlantic that kind of knocked me on my butt.

The father writing the piece had lost two teenagers in a car wreck. He addressed most everything everyone has already written about: fear of saying the wrong thing, in case it makes the bereaved break down and start crying uncontrollably; people not mentioning their own loss for fear of causing more pain; fear of the grief triggering their own unexpressed grief. He wrote, “Most people land on the same solution: There are no words.”

I gulped and kept reading as he proceeded to say what felt like a personal attack. He said, “There are no words” acts as a conversation killer just when what you want is a conversation.

I think back, and all the love and hugs and cards and food were comforting. But what comforted me most (and still does) is stories about Dan. When I bump into someone (and there have been several) who says, “I was a nurse at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. He always made me feel so beautiful. I loved Dan. We all did.”

A few years ago, a guy came up to me at my library and said, “I worked with Dan for the builder John Early, and I remember driving him to the ER because he was having a diabetic reaction.” I’ve met lots of young ladies who say they had a crush on Dan. He was such a flirt, and so handsome. I have been approached on Circuit Avenue, in line at the Steamship, walking on Lucy Vincent, by folks who saw him do his standup comedy act at Wintertide Coffee House in the ’70s.

Those kinds of encounters are the healing I forgot about when I visited my friend yesterday.

At least I didn’t say what Cindy and I both agreed were the worst attempts, like, “He’s in a better place,” or “Time heals all wounds.” I don’t agree with either of those; the better place would be alive and with me. And I don’t know what time heals, maybe a paper cut.

The thing is, everyone grieves differently. You have to come up with your own thoughtful, comfortable response. I may still say, “There are no words.” I may still bring bean soup, but one thing I know for sure, I will not pretend I am there to talk about ugly refrigerators and the weather.