Showing Love in the Face of Loss

When reacting to a friend’s loss, lead with your heart.

By Vicky Bates

The other day a “Dear Abby” letter caught my eye. A woman had written to say that her in-laws had never said a word to her about the recent death of her father. She mentioned that she had seen them a few times in the wake of her father’s death, and even though she had talked with her husband about the issue, nothing changed; they never said a word.

The letter brought to mind an interesting reflection. I experienced something similar once at a barbeque. A woman I knew approached me and didn’t utter a word about my son, who had died only a few months before. She just went on and on about nothing. If it was of any interest, I didn’t hear her, as I kept waiting for the words, “I was so sorry to hear about your loss.” The whole time I was wondering: Does she care? Does she know? Of course she knew. Everyone in our small town knew. And yet she said nothing that night to acknowledge my loss.

Though it seemed bizarre to me at the time, the fact is many people are afraid to bring up a loss, as they think it will remind the person who is grieving of their tragedy—that and they don’t know what to say. But take it from someone who knows: That’s all we think about. It’s not something that slides conveniently to the back of our minds: “Oh, my son? Why did you bring that up? I had forgotten all about his death.”

When I lost my son, I encountered all manner of responses to his passing. There were those who came up to me, clasped me in a tight bear hug, and wouldn’t let go. It required the strength of a sumo wrestler to break away and get some air. Sometimes these same individuals would step back, look at me and come in again, crying with open arms. It was exhausting at times.

Many times I felt compelled to assist friends or acquaintances in expressing their thoughts of comfort to me. I would often offer up something like, “I know how sorry you are for my loss, and I really appreciate your thinking of us.”

Some people would get nervous and would unintentionally say something that would send a powerful shockwave though me. Once in the grocery store, I was about to head out when a neighbor approached me holding a bag of cookies and said: “Boy, I almost got cookies with nuts for school, but I put them back, remembering your son.” As I gently smiled back, I wheeled my cart around the corner and collapsed against the towering shelves stocked full of baking supplies. I was paralyzed with that familiar feeling of wanting to physically retch the pain out of my body, feeling as though I had been punched in the stomach. Oh, how I wanted to lean against those pancake syrup bottles and be rocked like a baby, back and forth, by all those Aunt Jemimas until the pain subsided and I could face the checkout clerks.

It was different when I met another parent who had suffered a similar heartbreak. When the people who had experienced the loss of a child came up to me, locked eyes, then hugged me, there was a connection. These parents bore witness to me that, yes, you can live through this staggering disaster. You will continue to live and to participate in this unpredictable thing called life. There they were in front of me, looking like everyone else, with no visible scars of their grief.

Some of those who had experienced loss told me it would get better. Faced with this response, I would nod, thinking to myself, They can’t possibly have loved their child as much as I did mine. I didn’t think I would ever get over the loss of my son. Yes, they stood there wearing the look of survival, but would I be able to do the same?

As days tumbled forward, the peaks and valleys of my emotions eventually started to level out somewhat. When my child’s birthday or Christmas arrived, I had to brace myself and just concentrate on breathing. That’s when kind friends called or sent flowers. Year after year they remembered my son’s birthday and wanted to talk about him on that day, expressing compassion that touched my heart.

When we face a loss, we need people to listen to us; that is a part of the healing process. At times, we think we are alone—that no one could possibly understand our longings. But true friends stand as enduring pillars that we can lean on when those low days come about.

Recently friends of ours lost their son in a car accident. This boy and my younger son had played hockey and soccer together throughout high school. That afternoon I called the mother. She said she was thinking of me, since I had experienced the same kind of loss years before. As I was speaking with her, I realized that no matter how closely related our stories of loss were, and even though I thought I knew exactly how she felt, having been in her shoes, there was still no magic language that could calm my friend and help guide her to a gentle, safe place. I know from experience that your heart and hearing don’t connect when you are in shock, and hearing me say it would get better, as others had said to me, did not and could not yet penetrate her intense fog of grief.

If you are tongue-tied and think you will say the wrong thing to a friend who is grieving, just look the person in the eye and rest your hand on their arm. No more need be said. Everyone who makes an effort to approach a parent who has lost a child is trying to reach out on a human level; they are wearing their heart on their sleeve for at least that instant. Some people are better at verbalizing their thoughts than others; for those who are not, it is okay to stick to the hand-on-the-arm approach.

The pause we take after a death, when we are incapable of any action, is necessary for us to stop long enough to absorb the grace and love of our children. This happens only if we listen with our heart and soul.

Reaching Out to Those in Grief

When friends ask me what they can do to help those who have lost a loved one, I often suggest that they write a note or a letter to the person experiencing the loss. I share with them that the most beautiful gifts I received after my son died were letters from classmates and parents who told me special stories. There were many funny and endearing descriptions of my son and the impact he had had on the lives of others. I realized through these proffered memories that he stood as his own individual person in the world. I felt on some level that he had come into his own and made his mark on the world even though he was only 10 when he died. As I read and reread those stories, they became a healing mantra for me.

Vicky Bates’s early career was focused on interior design, corporate merchandising, and retail. In 1995 she and her husband moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, with their two school-aged boys, where she continued to run a successful interior design business. After the sudden death of one of her sons, in an effort to work through her sorrow Vicky decided to channel her energies into helping other people work through grief. She went through hospice training, wrote a book about grief, and assisted with retreats for mothers who had lost children. In 2011 she started a blog, www.losingachildfindingyourself.tumblr.com, to share her insight into the grieving process and to provide other mothers who have lost children with an understanding of how they can face and work through their personal tragedy. “I believe that I have a special understanding and compassion that I can share with others to help them cope with a loss as difficult as losing a child,” Vicky says.