There are several phrases I hear from people with stunning regularity. Depending on the person and my mood my response varies greatly. I’ve had this discussion with some other people who have recently lost their spouse and found that responses to trauma are incredibly cliche.
And I get it. There really is nothing to say that can help, but people’s instinct is to say something, anything to show empathy and caring and helpfulness. I mean, it backfires constantly in horrible and sometimes hilarious ways.
Is it weird to find humor in this stuff? It’s not because any of it is actually funny, of course. It’s all just so insanely ridiculous and…wrong.
Here are a few of my favorites:
How are you? – The ‘are’ is dragged out so it’s more like ‘How arrrrrrrrrre you?’ often with a slight tilt of the head and a little frown. They’re trying to show sympathy, but I don’t think they usually want to hear an honest answer because it inevitably means they have to come up with something, anything to say. Something like:
I don’t know how you do it – Do what? Be a dad, keep working, keep moving? I mean… I wasn’t given a fucking choice. That’s how I do it.
You’re so strong – Can you help me understand ‘strong’? Like, what do you mean by that? What is strong about laying in bed until 1 in the afternoon, so crippled by emotions you feel unable to get up. Or is it my daily breakdown in the car?
Here’s a few synonyms for ‘strong’. Well built (OK, that one’s true. I’m hot af). Sturdy. Durable. Indestructible.
…I guess the word works in a certain kind of way but only if by ‘strong’ you’re saying I’ve been getting my ass kicked but haven’t decided to join Christine. Otherwise I’m just existing. I am not strong.
And here’s the one the guts me every time.
How are the kids? – The best response to this question is one a friend shared with me ‘I’ll tell you in ten years’. I really don’t know how they’re doing. But here’s what I’ve seen so far:
E is more moody and argumentative. He spends every moment I’ll allow in front of electronics. He’s more awkward, and nervous around people. His grades are getting worse. He also got in his first fist fight at school the other day. He broke down pretty hard at the graveside service. He and I have always had a somewhat strained relationship because he is the most willful of the kids. I’m softer now but I don’t feel any closer to him. I don’t know how to give him what he needs.
T is probably the one who has adapted the best. The only real uncontrollable break down she’s had was when we were driving home after her birthday party. It was May 23rd, just 4 days after she found out she would never see her mom again. T had asked for a picture of her with her mom. I gave it to her in the car because I couldn’t handle doing it with an audience.
T: I MISS HER!!!!
And she fell apart. Since then she has done mostly positive things. She told me her mom and her had a saying, ‘I love you to the moon and back’. I didn’t know that. T found a light up sign with that saying on it. She told me she some times feels like Christine is close, like a cloud and at night when she turns the light on that she’s actually in the room. T will tell her about her day, how soccer is going, etc. She also told me she leaves the light off some nights because she wants to share her mom’s presence with the rest of us.
The angriest one is K. She is pretty pissed off at her mom. They already had a rocky relationship and K is upset that Christine would put us all through this much pain. She is the one that talks the very least about it, doesn’t share memories often and tries to avoid any conversation about how she feels.
Then there’s B. This one is killing me. She’s so far away. She doesn’t get to be around us and is stuck in grief alone. Similar to me, things don’t seem to be getting better for her. She got a tattoo, a bushel of forget-me-nots, Christine’s favorite flowers. Her and I have spend a few nights texting our sadness to each other. She feels like a lot of people dismiss her because Christine was her step mom and it shouldn’t hurt as much. She’s coming for Christmas and I’m so looking forward to seeing her.
So what are you supposed to say? What’s the right thing? A lot of time, it’s nothing at all. No, that’s not right. It’s just some affirmation that you care. My friends who know me best get it. ‘I love you, man’. That’s really it. It’s all that’s needed. Because there’s no right answer.
Sometimes I don’t even need anything. Just being there for me to talk to means so incredibly much. I can’t fix this, you can’t fix this. Why would we use words like we’re trying?
Even better? The thing I appreciate the most? It’s when someone shares a story about her with me. It’s been almost seven months since that day. When a person takes some time to tell me they’re still thinking about her it means so fucking much.
So so much.