meyerweb.com

Skip to: site navigation/presentation
Skip to: Thoughts From Eric

Archive: 2014

What Not To Say to a Grieving Parent

In the face of tragedy and grief, it’s hard to know what to say or do.  And one thing I’ve noticed is that some people—not most, maybe even not many, but more than enough—say and do what they think would help them, without really considering what might be helpful to the person who’s grieving.

I don’t really want to get into the doing side of things at this point, but I can definitely talk about the saying.  The most basic rule is:  don’t let your discomfort with tragedy and grief push you into saying whatever comes to mind.  A person’s grief is not a wall against which you should throw a spaghetti pot of nostrums, hoping that one of them will help.  Maybe one will, but the harm likely caused by the others will outweigh it.

The second most basic rule is:  don’t assume that a grieving person believes what you believe, or even that they believe what they believed before the tragedy.  They may surprise or even shock you.  The atheist may suddenly talk about an afterlife; the theist may angrily reject the existence of higher powers.  These may be temporary shifts, or not, but they are raw, honest expressions of grief.  Apply this rule in the exercise of the most basic rule, above.

Right now, I can only address this from the perspective of a grieving parent, so I will, though this all does apply to anyone who’s grieving—the child of a dead parent, the close friend of the recently deceased, and so on.  Let’s start out with things you should say to a grieving parent.

“I’m so sorry.”

You’ve let them know you feel sorrow for them, are thinking about them, and are generally there in support of them.  It seems like a lot for so little a sentence, but it’s all there.  I think this is just about the most universally acceptable thing you can say to a grieving parent, and it also has the benefit of being the most appropriate thing to say.

Be prepared for them to say “me too” or something like that; otherwise, they’ll probably thank you.  Do not tell them that no thanks are necessary.  Let them acknowledge your care and support in what is likely the only way they can manage, with the only words they can find.  Which leads us to the next thing you can fairly safely say.

“There are no words.”

Because after expressing your sorrow, there really aren’t.  There are no words that can explain it, no words that can make it better, no words that can take away their anguish.  I doubt there ever will be.

Beyond those two things, you can offer to help in some way—which is part of the doing that I said I wasn’t going to get into, but I’ll say here that you should only say this if you’re willing to do laundry or dishes or whatever else they request—or just sit quietly with them until they speak.  Then follow their lead in the conversation.  They may not speak at all, even if you sit with them for hours.  Be okay with this, or be somewhere else.


All right, so what do you not say to a grieving parent?  Honestly, we could be here all day with that, but I’ll skip over the ones that are obviously Just Wrong and address some of the most common ones that seem to pass by without comment.  And yes, I’ve had all of them said, tweeted, or Facebooked at me, or at least very near me.

Of course, all of these are dependent on the parent in question.  If they say their child is in a better place now, you can absolutely agree with them.  In fact, you should agree with them, or at least refrain from disagreement, regardless of whatever you personally believe.

Because that’s what you do if a grieving parent expresses a belief you don’t hold: You agree with them.  Now is not the time to be undermining whatever framework is holding them together; they have little enough of that as it is.  If you’re religious and a non-religious parent says that their loved one is gone forever, not existing at all, you go along with it.  If you’re non-religious and a grieving religious parent says their loved one is in a better place, in the arms of God, you go along with it.  This is about them, not you.  Adhere to the Ring Theory at all times.

That said, here we go.

“How are you doing?”

How do you think the parent of a dead child is doing?  Okay, I admit that this might be acceptable if you know them very well or if enough time has passed—though how could you know if enough time has passed?—and because it comes from a place of concern for their well-being, this might get half a pass.  Except what it usually does is force them to either lie conventionally (“I’m okay”) or tell the painful, probably swear-heavy truth.  Better would be “I’ve been thinking about you” or even “I’ve been worried about how you’re doing”, though not by very much.

It’s also very much the case that this has been culturally ingrained for many of us; it’s just a longer way of saying “hello”, fired off without thinking, and so it just slips out.  Grief creates an extraordinary circumstance, though, and you need to go into it challenging all of your preconceived notions about how to interact with other people.  Be aware of what you’re about to say and how it might affect the person in front of you.  (I mean, you should probably always do that anyway, but make sure you do it in this situation.)

“It’s all part of God’s plan.” / “God has a special plan for them.” / “Everything is in God’s hands.”

You just told the parent of a dead child that God planned the death of their child.  That God meant for it to happen, wanted it to happen, and in fact arranged events so that it would be sure to happen.  This is not comforting.  It is very much like the opposite.

“God needed another angel in Heaven.”

You just told the parent of a dead child that their loved one is gone because an all-powerful deity took their child away from them, on purpose, for its needs, not caring what it did to them.  Also, if they don’t believe in God (or even a version of God sufficiently similar to yours), you just said the equivalent of “Santa needed another elf in his workshop.”  Would you say that to a dead child’s parent?  Then don’t say this either.

“Now they’re watching over you.”

You just reminded the parents of a dead child that for all their care and efforts, they could not protect their loved one from untimely death, which is pretty much the most basic responsibility a parent feels.  Furthermore, it is the job (some would say calling, others would say privilege) of parents to watch over and protect their children, not the other way around.  Telling them that this arrangement has now been inverted does not help.

“They’re in a better place now.” / “They’re where they belong.”

You just told the parent of a dead child that there is a place better for them than the home that sheltered them and the family that cherished them.  That the child truly belongs somewhere other than with the people who loved them most.  Don’t do that.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

You just implied that the child is dead because something their parents did resulted in the death.  That wasn’t the intent, but it’s still in there, easily picked up on by parents racked with overwhelming regret and, very possibly, guilt.  (Even parents who did everything they could in a no-win situation are likely to feel guilt that they didn’t do more or couldn’t find a way out.)

“Maybe it’s for the best.”

You just told the parent of a dead child that it’s better their child is dead than still alive.  No.  Just no.


The one I almost included was “I’m praying for you”, because you don’t always know what the other person thinks of prayer.  In general, though, I think most non-religious people (even grieving parents) will mentally translate it to “I’m thinking of you and care about you”.  Of course, if you know for a fact the grieving parent is non-religious, you should probably think hard about skipping this one.  You can still pray for the non-religious, obviously, but say that you’ve been thinking about them.

There are a bunch more that are borderline.  “At least they aren’t suffering any more” is very risky, for example, even if the child was in fact suffering greatly before they died.  It reminds the parent of their child’s suffering, for example, and they may feel guilt as well as grief about that (see above).

As a last note, be careful about what terminology you use regarding death.  Some parents won’t want to say or hear that word, preferring instead phrases like “passed away” or “passed on”.  Others actually find phrases like “passed away” or “lost” to be more painful.  Again, take your cues from the griever.  If possible, don’t use any death-related terminology until they do, and then use the words they do.

To sum up:  think hard about what will help them rather than what will soothe you; do not contradict expressions of grief even when they conflict with your beliefs; be sure to adhere to the Ring Theory; take your cues from the griever.  And be prepared for just about anything.


My thanks to Gini Judd, Kate Kikel, and TJ Luoma for their pre-publication feedback on this post.

The Silent Hole in the World

There is a sound a family makes that only its members can truly appreciate.  The interplay of voices, footfalls, laughter, sobbing, shrieks of joy and frustration and anger, songs sung, catchphrases, the rattle and chirp of beloved toys played with, doors slamming, the rustling of clothing and whispers of breathing, running water and bath splashes and teeth brushed.  The aural fabric of lives entwined.  It forms a curtain around you, altering your perceptions of the world.  It becomes the world.

You feel it, usually half-consciously, but if you stop and listen with purpose, you can actively hear it and savor it and know that the world is right, secure and content inside the cocoon it weaves.  It’s not a symphony, it’s nothing so organized and artificial and remote as that, but sure, yes, call it a symphony, because words like “texture” and “landscape” are even more misleading.

And now a whole section has been silenced.  Not simply resting, not waiting to rejoin the piece, but utterly removed from the stage.  Vanished forever.

I cannot describe how utterly wrong that feels.  Everything feels wrong, sounds wrong, every instinct is scraped on edge, screaming danger, because something has gone fundamentally, horribly wrong and I must fix it.  And I can’t fix it.  It can never be fixed, not by anyone.  Someone is missing and will never be found, no matter how many times we look; can never be replaced, no matter what we might do to try.

There is a silent hole in the world, and the best I can ever hope to do is train my ear not to hear it, most of the time.  Find a way to hear around the void and let what’s left fill my ears.  If I am lucky and work very hard at it, I can learn to appreciate the symphony for what it is, and not constantly obsess over what it once was and should still be.

rebeccapurple

I have been made aware of the proposal to add the named color beccapurple (equivalent to #663399) to the CSS specification, and also of the debate that surrounds it.

I understand the arguments both for and against the proposal, but obviously I am too close to both the subject and the situation to be able to judge for myself.  Accordingly, I let the editors of the Colors specification know that I will accept whatever the Working Group decides on this issue, pro or con.  The WG is debating the matter now.

I did set one condition: that if the proposal is accepted, the official name be rebeccapurple.  A couple of weeks before she died, Rebecca informed us that she was about to be a big girl of six years old, and Becca was a baby name.  Once she turned six, she wanted everyone (not just me) to call her Rebecca, not Becca.

She made it to six.  For almost twelve hours, she was six.  So Rebecca it is and must be.

Kat and I are deeply touched by all the caring and support from the community, and this proposal does mean a lot to me personally.  It will always mean that, even if the proposal is ultimately declined.  I always thought “it’s an honor to have been nominated” was a pleasant spin on sour grapes, but it’s not.  It really is an honor, regardless of the outcome, even if it is an honor I wish nobody had had cause to think of in the first place.

Thank you all.  For everything.


Update 22 Jun 14: the proposal was approved by the CSS WG and added to the CSS4 Colors module.  Patches to web browsers have already happened in nightly builds.  (I’m just now catching up on this after the unexpected death of Kat’s father early Saturday morning.)

I Love You, I Miss You

In April, not long after we told Rebecca we couldn’t find the special medicine, I heard her crying in her bedroom.  I went in to find her with her brother Joshua and Kat.  She was sobbing, huddled in Kat’s arms.

“Rebecca says she wants Joshua to have her Cinderella’s Castle alarm clock forever and ever,” Kat told me through her own tears.

This is the clock that, for a while, is how Rebecca got to sleep, listening to the two stories it could play, one after the other, until she drifted off.  She loved to watch the tiny figures of Cinderella and Prince Charming twirl about as cheery music played and the towers lit up with slowly shifting colors.

Our five-year-old daughter, a fan of all princesses but of Cinderella above all others, willing her treasured clock to her little brother.

I cannot ever describe the emotion that pierced me in that moment.

A few days ago, Joshua added a new component to his bedtime routine.  We didn’t prompt him; he just did it of his own accord, and continues to do it.  Just before it’s time to read stories, he goes over to the clock Rebecca gave him, sitting there on his dresser as it has since that day in April, and starts the music.  Looking at the spinning figurines within, he says in a clear, slightly wistful voice, “Good night, Rebecca.  I love you, Rebecca.  I miss you, Rebecca.”

I cannot ever describe the emotion that pierces me in those moments.

But I can say that it has helped me start to pierce the numbness I described earlier.

Of course it brings tears to my eyes when he wishes Rebecca good night.  The first time I saw him do it, I almost completely broke down, only containing myself for fear of scaring him or making him think he should stop.  I don’t want him to stop until he moves beyond it naturally.

What that pure moment of love made me realize, to my horror, is that I had stopped saying those things.  I had stopped saying I loved her and missed her, because she was gone and there was no point.  But there was a point, all along, and I (perhaps understandably) overlooked it in my grief.  The point is that I can still hear those words, and in hearing them, feel what they mean and what we have lost.

So every so often, when I have a few moments alone or with Kat, I say the words:  I love you, Rebecca.  I miss you, Rebecca.

It isn’t enough to think them (or type them, for that matter).  I speak them, in a whisper or a normal tone or whatever voice seems right.  It becomes a miniature elegy.  A way of slowly, slowly, slowly coming to terms with her death.  Saying the words brings tears, sometimes just a few, sometimes a few minutes of them.  Each tear brings me a tiny step closer to acceptance.

I know it will take a long time, but this small ritual, taught to me by my three-year-old son, keeps me on the path.

I love you, Rebecca.  I miss you, Rebecca.

I Have No Voice, and I Must Grieve

In the hours since Rebecca’s funeral and inurnment, I find it increasingly hard to speak.  I can talk if I must, almost always in response to someone’s attempts to engage me in conversation, or to thank people for coming to Shiva.  I have no words of my own.  Only here, typing, can I find a few.  Even these are hard to produce.

People come to the house and tell me how sorry they are, and all I can say is “So am I.”  They tell me how remarkable Rebecca was, how much the service moved them, how we’re constantly in their thoughts, and all I can do is mumble “Thank you.”  They ask me how I’m doing and I don’t know how to answer.

I look at her pictures on the wall and on the mantle, sitting in front of the Shiva candle, and I try to feel something.  Anything.  Grief seems as absent as joy.  Tears rarely come, and only then in sympathy with the tears of others.  People tell me how incredibly strong I am, and I don’t know what they mean.

In my head, I tell myself that this is still shock, deep shock, and that grief will come.  In my heart, I ask myself how I could possibly feel—more accurately, not feel—this way, if I ever truly loved Rebecca.  Was the whole thing a long, involved dream?

The mourning candle burns on the mantle, and the pictures surround it.  Rebecca as a baby.  At Disney.  Laughing with her siblings.  Kissing a dolphin.  Smiling next to her mother.  It must have been real.  The house seems empty now, vast beyond need, filled with too many rooms and not enough use.  I miss her laugh, her footsteps, her arms around my neck, her energy.  It must have been real.  Yet I still sit, numb and passive, wondering if I will ever grieve my child’s death, and what it will say about me if I never do.

Eulogy

Below is the eulogy I delivered at Rebecca’s funeral, as I wrote it.  I hope that what I actually said matches the text.  The same deep shock that let me speak also prevented me from retaining any clear memory of what I said, and I’m not ready to watch the archived recording of the service to find out.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready.  I hope I will—to see Carolyn’s tribute to her sister, if nothing else.


Rebecca was fierce.  She beat adults in staring contests when she was two weeks old.  Rebecca was joyful.  Her laugh could fill a room and bring a smile to anyone who heard it.  Rebecca was stubborn.  She would often refuse to give in, even when it cost her something she wanted.  Rebecca was kind, and loving, and mischievous, and oh so very ticklish.

She vibrated with energy.  Her philosophy was essentially: never walk when you can skip, never skip when you can run, never run when you can dance, and never dance when you can hide yourself around the next corner and then laughingly yell “BOO!” when everyone else finally catches up with you.

She loved to steal our phones and wallets and keys from our pockets, not to hide them away or do anything mean or malicious, but to wave them in front of us and laugh her way through an affectionate, singsong tease.  If there’s a world beyond this one, I hope whoever’s in charge has secured all the valuables.  Not to prevent her from swiping them, which would be an impossible goal, but because she would be disappointed and bored if they were too easy to swipe.

Rebecca is not an angel, nor would she wish to be.  If anything, Rebecca is now a poltergeist.  On her sixth birthday, we had planned to go to Cedar Point that day and the next.  Instead, that was the day she died… and on that day, a water main break closed Cedar Point for the entire weekend, because if she couldn’t go, then nobody gets to go.  And in brief conversation this morning, I was literally about to say the words “lose electricity” when the power went out in our house.

The little stinker.

One of the hardest things for us in the last few weeks of her life was seeing how the tumor slowly and inexorably took all that sass and spice away from her.  The loss of energy and emotion was horrible.  We had fought so long and hard to keep her quality of life normal, and we had succeeded.  It was only at the very end, just the last few days, that she moved beyond our ability to preserve it.

Underneath it all, she was still Rebecca.  She got mad at her sister and brother because they would get to stay us and she wouldn’t, and then she forgave them because she understood it wasn’t their fault and she loved them so much.  She gave us disdainful looks when she thought our attempts to tease her were lame.  She asked, wordlessly but clearly, to hear her favorite stories.  She told us she didn’t love us because she wanted to push us away, to lessen our pain.  But when we explained to her that the joy of loving her was worth any pain, and that we could never stop loving her regardless, she relented and admitted the truth that we had never doubted.  The last words and gestures that passed between us were of love.

In her last hours, she was surrounded by love, her room filled with people who loved her as she loved them, never leaving her alone for a second.  We held and snuggled her all the way to the end, all of us together.  And the people in that room were surrounded by the love of those who loved them, and they by those who loved them.  All of that love focused on Rebecca.  She deserved it.  But then, so does every child.

Now she is gone, and we who remain are devastated.  It is only together that we will move forward.  Community has sustained us the past months, and made it possible for us to do everything we could for Rebecca and Carolyn and Joshua.  Community will help us get through this.  Our hearts have been broken into uncountable pieces, but we will help pick up those pieces together.  I am beyond heartbroken that she is gone, but I will never, not for an instant, ever regret that she came into our home and our lives.

What matters in this life is not what we do but what we do for others, the legacy we leave and the imprint we make.  Her time may have been short, but her spark illuminated so much in that time, touched and warmed so many people, and for the rest of our days we will all be changed for the better.

Funeral Service

The funeral service for Rebecca is this afternoon at 3:00pm EDT (GMT-0400) at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, Ohio.  If you can be and wish to be there in person, please come.  Even if we don’t know each other very well, you are welcome.  There will be enough room.

If you can’t be there but want to be a part of the service, there is a live stream planned, as there is for most events in the temple’s main sanctuary; it will be available at the Fairmount Temple’s livestream page.  It even looks as though the service will be available on demand later, which horrifies me almost as much as the countdown clock.  Even though I understand why these things exist, and why they are as they are, I broke down for a while at both.  This is what I helped to build, what I helped make happen, I thought in despair, as if my work on the Web had somehow led to my daughter’s death.

The mind makes little enough sense in the best of circumstances.  In the depths of grief, it deploys an illogic that defies belief, let alone reason.

I talked with the video hosting company about possible demand, a conversation which was horrifying in its own right.  They assure me that they should be able to handle any load.  Still, I make this request: if you are planning to watch the livestream, please access it early only if we know each other personally—family members, friends, and so on.  Just click on the logo 15 minutes or so before the start time to get the spinning circle, and wait for the stream to start.  If you don’t know me that well, please wait until just before the start time before getting into the queue.

I may be wildly overestimating the demand for watching a funeral in real time, but then I would never have expected the social-media campaigns currently underway.  I probably should have anticipated them, but I had never really thought much about what would happen after she died.  I was too focused on trying to find a way for her to live, and then on making her final days the best we could make them.

I can write all this now, in the small hours of the night and scheduling publication for the morning, because I’m currently in a shock/denial period.  Today was mostly grief, but eventually the grief drains you to the point that you just slide into numb shock.  Then something triggers you back into the grief for a while.  There were a lot of triggers today.

It’s still so hard to believe.  The enormity of it, and the closeness of it, makes it almost impossible to grasp.  My mind keeps insisting that she’s just away at camp, or asleep in her room.  Not gone forever.  Never that.  Not until I suddenly remember the cold, empty truth of it.

I miss her so much.

So Many Nevers

She’ll never learn to read.  She’ll never learn to ride a two-wheel bicycle, or to drive a car.  Never get to ride the best roller coasters, never learn to swim unassisted, never go to sleep-away summer camp.  Never get her first social-media account, never join a sports team, never compete on the gym floor, never learn to play a musical instrument.  Never fall hopelessly in love, never break a heart, never have her heart broken and learn from it.  Never sneak out for an evening with her friends, never hate her teacher, never graduate from high school.  Never get her ears pierced, never get her first tattoo.  Never fight with her sister over clothing, never share secrets with her brother, never be a shoulder for her siblings to cry on.  Never have her own place to live, never adopt a pet of her own, never get her first job and eventually quit it in disgust for a better job.  Never get to decide whether to marry, whether to have children, whether to believe in higher powers and lives beyond this one.

All the light bulbs of discovery that will never switch on, all the radiant smiles of pride that will never burst forth, all the moments of insight that will never unfold, all the experiences she’ll never enjoy.  I feel the weight of all the years she will never have, and they may yet crush me.

My beautiful, bright-burning girl, my little spark.  I wanted so much to watch you grow and learn, and to see the world made new through your eyes.  I would do almost anything to restore all that to you.  Give you my own years, if I could.

So many nevers.

September 2014
SMTWTFS
August  
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
282930  

Archives

Feeds

Extras