When my daughter Maclain died 14 years ago, I was dubbed the expert on grief. Maclain was 16 months old when she was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect that affected breathing and swallowing. A week before surgery to address the defect, she choked on a french fry. On Oct. 10, 2008, she died.
Since then, I’ve been the person family and friends consult whenever someone dies. I’m asked what to say to the grieving family and what might help them. At funerals, I nod to the other parents who have lost children ― we are expressionless, numb. I listen to the eulogies, remembering my own words and how it felt to be the mother of the guest of honor. I know what they’re going through and what lies ahead.
When my best friend’s husband died, I still managed to screw up. Marshall had a heart attack in his sleep. Morgan woke up to his unusually loud exhalations. When she nudged him, something felt wrong. She yelled to her children, and 17-year-old Walker started CPR. Kirksey, her 18-year-old daughter, called 911, but Marshall, a 61-year-old man who worked out every day, was dead.
Last week, my girlfriends and I brought dinner to Morgan’s. Our small group of friends has known each other since high school. We talk regularly and play cards or dominoes every few months.
I made gluten-free eggplant rollatini — vegan but with real cheese on half because Morgan likes real cheese. Sofi brought a salad with cranberries, arugula and homemade lemon vinaigrette. Morgan shared a cabernet from a winery she and Marshall discovered while traveling around Italy for their 20th anniversary.
I thought about Marshall the entire time. His energy still hung in the air — calm and kind — just like always. But I didn’t bring him up. We were at Morgan’s for three hours, and nobody mentioned Marshall’s death. I wanted to appear happy. I didn’t want to cry and ruin the mood, and yet, I knew better. I’d been here. I knew that being the happy friend didn’t work for someone newly grieving. I knew it was too hard to hear about others’ happiness.
The week after Maclain’s funeral, my girlfriends brought food and wine. I sat at the dining room table, dominoes propped up in front of each person, wanting them to leave so I could cry alone. I zoned out, floating above the table, wishing I could reverse time and schedule Maclain’s surgery for a week earlier. My friends talked about which preschools were better and who was hosting Thanksgiving dinner. I believe they too thought it best to be as “normal” as possible ― for my sake.
But I didn’t want to talk about normal things. I wanted to talk about Maclain. I wanted to complain about how cranky she was the last time I took her photo, how she’d just started saying “Mama,” how pale and tiny she was when I signed the papers to donate her organs. I wanted to tell them I didn’t care who got her parts. I wanted them back.
As they chatted about their kids, I wondered why they got to keep theirs and I didn’t.
I couldn’t understand why they were laughing, living life as if nothing had changed. What I know now is that life hadn’t changed for them. They’d consoled me on the day they figured I needed consoling the most, but they didn’t live with the pain like I did and didn’t know what would be best for me.
When the card game was over at Morgan’s and she was putting the decks away, I asked how Walker and Kirksey were doing — how she was doing.
“I’ve been sorting through the bills,” Morgan said. “Marshall’s mess.”
That could have been my opening to let her talk about her husband. But before she could finish answering my question, my phone rang and I took the call, kissed everyone goodbye, grabbed my empty dish, and drove home.
A few days later, I ran into Ashley, who was also at that dinner. She told me Morgan was hurt that no one wanted to talk about Marshall. Shame swept through my body and settled in my chest. Tears filled my eyes as it pushed against my heart. I screwed up. Me of all people. I knew better.
In the days since, I have been trying to understand why I wasn’t a better friend. Why didn’t I talk about Marshall? Why didn’t I do what I knew she needed the most? Maybe it’s because I don’t want the role of grief expert. That’s a role nobody wants ― and nobody can fill.
But that’s not it. It hit me in the shower, where I do my best thinking: I hadn’t mentioned Marshall because each loss brings back the pain, the numbness, the person missing from my own family. I’m afraid if I let myself feel that pain, it will destroy me all over again.
If I could go back a week, I would have let the phone call I took go to voicemail. I would have sat there all night ― if that’s what Morgan wanted. I would have taken my cues from her (which is what you should always do with a grieving person, as they should be the one to decide if and when they want to talk). But no matter what, I would have made myself available and open. I would have made it clear that I was up for anything she needed. If she wanted just to cry, I’d let her cry. If she wanted to drone on and on about her husband’s mess, I would have let her drone. If she wanted to talk, I would have asked about the funny things Marshall said during their travels in Italy. Instead of leaving, I would have brought him back to life, if only for an evening, and celebrated the incredible man he was.
From what I’ve experienced, grieving people want to talk about their person. Maybe. If the setting is right. And if you’re at their house, girlfriends gathered around drinking wine, their dog looking for a lap where there once was one, the setting is often right. If you’re at a March of Dimes fundraiser with a room full of strangers, you might want to wait until you’re in the Uber home. But I suggest a time when your friend isn’t wearing a full face of makeup.
If you’re unsure whether your friend wants to talk, listen or be alone, pay attention to the signs. A yawn, a stare or silence could mean it’s time for you to leave. Do not say goodbye while on your phone; the call may seem like a slight to your host. Do not leave with a sad, pathetic look on your face ― eyebrows squinched together, head tilted, mouth frowny. Nobody feels comforted by that look. Nobody.
When it’s time, instead of giving in to the fear and hiding your emotions, show your friend you are missing him too. It’s OK to cry.
You don’t have to have the right words ― there are no right words. You’re not going to be able to make it all better. It probably won’t be better for a long, long time. Maybe never. But you can be there and sometimes ― often ― that is enough. And you can make it clear that you will be there, that you’re just a phone call or a text away, if they need you. Check on them ― and not just for the few days or week after their loved one has passed. Grief sticks around, usually much longer than we talk about. Invite them to things. Be OK if they say no. But keep asking.
This is what I wish people had done for me after I lost my child. This is what I wish I’d done for my friend. But we’re only human, and grief is a tricky, difficult thing. Even those of us who know it well can end up doing something that feels wrong. And every death is different. Every person left behind is different. But the one thing that is always the same is that we can make the offer to be there, however that looks or feels for that grieving person, and that will be more than enough ― it’ll be a gift.
Allison Langer is a Miami native with a University of Miami MBA, as well as a writer and single mom to three children, ages 12, 15 and 17. She is a private writing coach, taught memoir writing in prison and has been published in The Washington Post, Mutha Magazine, Scary Mommy, Ravishly, Modern Loss and NextTribe. Allison’s stories and voice can be heard on “Writing Class Radio,” a podcast she co-produces and co-hosts that has been downloaded more than 750,000 times. Allison is currently working on a memoir.