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.