Robin, Camila's mom

Say Her Name

Just after the holidays, I was briefly hospitalized. It was nothing too serious. I needed IV delivery of drugs to generate a quick cure. The night before being discharged, I met one of those wonderful nurses: genuine, smart, and sensitive. I had mentioned in passing that I had been up to Seattle Cancer Care, and she had begun a sentence with, “Were you there for yourself or someone else?” Then “I’m nosy. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

No, I said, I’ll tell you. I’m happy to tell you.

So I told her about Camila.

Then she told me about losing her dad when she was 23. She lamented that no one knew how to talk to her about it. “Maybe it was their fear that kept them quiet,” she said, “the fear of saying the wrong thing or the fear of their own mortality.” She said she had felt so lonely, so alone, because no one would talk about it. No one was talking to her about her loss or her father.

Later, reflecting on our talk, I realized that her question about my stay at Seattle Cancer Care was not so much about my experience as it was about her own.

Like me, she needed to talk. Like me, she looked for an opening, a connection. Her coping mechanism was that wonderful, neutral disclaimer: “I’m nosy. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.” It provided a perfect opening: non-emotional and self-deprecating. And it worked.

Loss is such a silent suffering. So many walk around from day to day wishing we could talk about the person we love and lost. People are so careful, so polite. No one wants to hurt someone, and it’s easy to rationalize a reason not to acknowledge a person’s loss. But after someone has died, the survivor still loves them, still thinks about them – and still longs to talk about them.

Those who haven’t experienced loss need to know that bringing up the person we lost will not hurt us. It will help us.

My nurse reminded me that it is easy to create an opening. You can say something like, “I was just thinking of your girl – or your boy, your father, mother, sister or brother, your husband or partner – the other day…” Make it up. Come up with some simple device, some way of mentioning their name – so that we can say their name too.

My nurse, 10 years after losing her father, was still looking for opportunities to say his name, to talk about him.

Those in the circle know that, after sharing loss, you can share anything. It is the most humanizing of human experiences.

With words, reach out. Don’t be afraid. Say their name.

3 Responses to “Say Her Name”

  1. grahamforeverinmyheart

    I find that people will happily reminisce about my parents…but mentioning my son seems taboo. There is unnatural and horrifying pain associated with losing a child, whereas losing a parent is to be expected at some point (my father died of a heart attack when I was 22…he was 53 which seemed young at the time). I wish I could make them more comfortable mentioning my son, but I don’t know how.

    • Robin, Camila's mom

      I know what you mean by that sense of “taboo.” One of the tactics I use is to mention Camila in conversation myself whenever it seems contextually appropriate or natural. I talk about her as I think about her, when she pops into my head. Sometimes I began by making a comparison: “Camila would do that too…” then elaborate briefly. Or I will make a counter reminiscence: “I remember one time when Camila….” In this way, I help them understand that I am thinking of Camila and that I am comfortable talking of her, as well. I keep my reflections brief – I don’t begin to dominate the conversation or subject. What almost always happens is that the other person will add to my comment. “Oh, yes,” they will say, “I remember when she….” And for a brief, wonderful moment, I’ll get to hear someone talk about my girl.

      Talking about our children keeps them alive. I guess people just don’t understand that. But I really believe that it’s important that you and I and everyone who has lost a child get whatever we need to help us survive our loss – and I think we can sometimes choose to talk to people, to tell them what we feel. Ask them to please not hesitate to speak of our child. Helping others understand this will make it easier for the next bereft parent they meet.


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