Out in the country where I live, we don’t have mail trucks.
For years, a lady would lean awkwardly across the passenger side of a maroon sedan to deliver mail. The postal workers drove random, unmarked cars and the only way you could recognize one was because they were pulled up to the mailboxes and their back seats were stuffed with packages.
A while ago, they must have sprung for some special-order European cars with the steering wheel on the right. They still aren’t mail trucks, but now the postal workers can at least deliver packages without throwing out their backs.
None of this is particularly important to the story. It just occurred to me that it’s mildly interesting if you live in a bigger suburb or city where mail delivery is normal.
Last week I got one of those orange slips that said I had a certified letter I needed to sign for. I missed the day I could have left it in the mailbox and had the letter taped to my door, so I drove into town and went into the post office to sign for it in person.
I recognized the blonde lady behind the counter. She’s worked there a long time and got to know Eric pretty well during all of the years he was driving over to drop off big orders for Very Baby. He’s also spent the last four and a half years dropping off anything that got missed in the daily pick up for Sun Tails.
I had my mask on, but she looked at my name on the form and asked, “Oh, are you Eric’s wife?”
She looked me in the eyes and said, “I was so sorry to hear about his passing.”
I teared up, of course. And then she apologized for making me cry. I shook my head wanting to tell her that the tears didn’t matter, that I appreciated the acknowledgement, but all I could get out was, “Thank you.”
I can’t tell you how many messages I receive that either start with or end with a disclaimer about how they know they aren’t saying the right thing, or how they’re afraid they’re saying dumb things.
Here’s the thing.
I’d rather be checked in on badly (or awkwardly) than not at all.
I’ve only have a few interactions where people have said something… not the best… and they’ve all been with strangers who were taken by surprise when I blurted out my circumstances without any warning or introduction. And even then, I could still see and appreciate the effort that went into acknowledging the blubbering lady’s grief barf.
It’s the silence that can make me cry.
I ran into two lovely ladies at the high school yesterday. Both of them greeted me kindly. I’m sure both of them sent condolences a few months ago. But neither one said, “I’m so sorry about Eric” or asked how I was doing.
Which? Is fine? And also not fine?
I understand that no one knows what to say. I also understand that when someone says a thing, they are instantly filled with regret if I start to cry.
But I’d rather have this big awful terrible thing acknowledged than ignored. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Ignoring it doesn’t save me from tears… my whole life is tears right now. If I don’t cry at the post office, I’ll cry on the way to Ben’s band concert. If I don’t cry in the common area at the high school, I’ll cry in the parking lot.
I know it’s not the world’s job to stop everything and acknowledge my grief. It wasn’t either of those ladies jobs to sort through their thoughts and figure out what might be appropriate to say to me during a ten-second passing in the middle of a student art show.
Sidebar: I’ve never been this sensitive before and it’s not my favorite.
I don’t think either one of those ladies read here, but if they do, they don’t need to apologize. It was just one of a million post-Eric’s-death experiences that gave me the chance to examine grief a little further.
Why does it hurt so much when my grief isn’t acknowledged? The high school principal was practically a mute when I went in to pull Nate out of school. He already knew what had happened, but I had to explain the circumstances further because we needed some special forms signed so Nate could take the GED before he turned 18 (he passed with flying colors!). The principal seemed paralyzed and couldn’t even muster some kind of, “Sorry for what you’re dealing with.” I barely knew the guy, but wow. The silence hurt.
Why does it mean so much when my grief is acknowledged? That postal worker didn’t need to say anything. Neither did the dentist or the receptionist at the orthodontist. But they did and it mattered.
I watched this video by Speaking Grief a couple of weeks ago.
If you didn’t watch it, there are some pretty powerful images of people walking around the city wearing t-shirts with the title of whoever they lost printed across the chest.
I wish we could really wear those shirts. I wish something like that was universally acknowledged. Like, could we bring back Victorian-era widow’s weeds? Black arm bands? It would allow all of us to be a little more aware of what others around us are carrying, wouldn’t it? There could be different colors for different types of losses or struggles. Red armband? Someone close to you is in the hospital and you’re worried sick. Yellow armband? You’re going through a difficult divorce. Green armband? You’ve lost your job, you don’t know if you can afford rent this month. Blue armband? You’re up to your neck in a legal battle and you don’t know how you’re going to get through it. Black armband? Someone you love has died.
A t-shirt or an armband would signal to the pharmacist or Target cashier, “Hey, now is not the time to ask if I have any fun plans for the weekend.” It would signal to the fellow human who is pissed off because you accidentally stole their parking spot that you aren’t an asshole, you’re just drowning inside your own heart and mind. It would signal to any outsider that some understanding—a sympathetic smile or a knowing nod would be great.
But there isn’t anything like that. And I know, even if there were, it would probably get abused and get ruined. :(
Eric and I got lost on the way to my cousin Lacy’s funeral back in 2012. I was giving him directions and got confused about which way to turn and he got flustered and didn’t signal properly and the guy waiting to turn the other way (facing us) gave us the double bird through his windshield. Dude didn’t know we were going to a funeral for a beautiful 24 year old girl who died too soon. We could have just been a couple of douchebags out to ruin his day. And maybe he was on his way to see his dying mother in the hospital; we didn’t know; couldn’t know. The whole system of just trying to be good people who give each other the benefit of the doubt falls apart when we’re frustrated, late, sad, grieving, upset, lost in our own thoughts… you know, being human. Maybe we should add the color-coded flags to our cars too. “Sorry for cutting you off, here’s my red flag. I’m worried about my child sick with leukemia. Maybe give me some grace.”
I had a friend who struggled to say, “I’m doing well,” or “Fine, thanks,” when a waiter would ask how she was doing. She wanted to tell the whole story, but her story would take several hours. Sometimes she’d try anyway, going into great (and often inappropriate) detail about a particular injury she was dealing with. I tried to help her understand that the waiter or cashier or salesperson wasn’t asking because they actually wanted to know. They were asking to be polite. And in America, it’s polite to say you are doing well even if you aren’t.
And that sucks.
As an introvert, small talk has always been difficult for me. I don’t want the barber to chat me up while he’s cutting my son’s hair. I don’t want to explain what I do for a living when I’d just like my ragged cuticles trimmed. Now it’s even harder. It takes so much energy to say “Great, how are you?” let alone something like, “I have four kids, yes we like skiing, no we don’t have a spring vacation planned.” Like vitamins swallowed without enough water, the meaningless small talk stuff gets stuck in the back of my throat and creates lumps that last the rest of the day.
Despite how it sounds, I don’t need to tell everyone I meet that I’m a widow. In fact, I’m actually pretty careful about who I tell. I don’t know if telling the man who comes to clean out my vents will just help him understand why I didn’t know what size filter the furnace required, OR if he’ll think, “Hmm, sad, vulnerable single lady! Looks like a great opportunity to take advantage of someone!” (While rubbing his hands together and cackling evilly, of course.)
Regardless, the ‘whole story’ versus ‘answering polite inquiries with socially acceptable niceties’ is now a quandary that I grapple with any time a stranger asks me how it’s going. Terrible, actually. Thanks for asking?
If I do say something like, “I’ve had better days,” this seems to invite even more awkward conversation wherein my “bad day” is equated with getting a flat tire or running out of potato chips.
So, I don’t know. This is such a long-winded way of saying that when I run into people who already know that this big terrible awful thing happened, it means a lot for them to acknowledge it. When blog readers or instagram friends pop into my DMs to say, “Hey, I don’t know what to say, but I wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you,” it means the world to me. I really, really appreciate the comments left on my posts. I appreciate emails and texts—all of it, even when I don’t have the energy to reply (which is usually).
I guess I just want to give people permission to acknowledge the big awful terribles. Even if you feel like you’re doing it badly or awkwardly or you’re afraid you’ll say the wrong thing.
Saying something is better than saying nothing
Tonight marks three months since Eric died, which is maybe why I’m rambling on about post office trucks, widow’s weeds, and evil vent cleaners.
There are big swaths of my daily life that are just living; just momming; just adulting. There are hours and hours that pass wherein I have makeup on and my hair done* and I’m going to doctor appointments and taking the car in for an oil change. I am not in a heap on the floor sobbing every minute of every day. But all those hours and days and weeks of normalcy are weird and strange and horribly foreign because of their normalcy. I’m a broken record, I know, but it doesn’t seem possible that the world has not spun off its axis and we have not been flung from its surface to die of oxygen deprivation in space. What even is all this gravity and atmosphere? I don’t understand any of it.
* I do have a few inches of gray roots and I can’t find enough craps to care about it. I have been embroiled in some ridiculous henna-related hair drama for over a year and a half, so I guess now is a great time to grow it all out again and re-embrace all that silver. IDK, IDC.
My mom had a good idea to celebrate the day Eric was born. She suggested we make a donation to the Snake River Animal Shelter in his name. I loved the idea, but all my best-laid plans for his birthday kind of went down the crapper and the donation page was still blinking emptily at me by the time I collapsed into bed. We did get the Thai food but one of the kids was really struggling with the day and we didn’t have the sit-down meal like I’d hoped. Instead, I ended up crying and the kid ended up crying and there were some slammed doors and then we finally worked it out, eating noodles on the floor surrounded by laundry and science homework. Like an episode of Gilmore Girls, only lots sadder and I’m not wearing low-rise jeans.
So, I made the donation today. They have a memorial fund option and you can write a little message. I was glad I did it online instead of in person because I cried big ugly sobs and my shirt is still dotted with my tears. I’m so dramatic. Seriously, I would work the Queen Victoria mourning dress right now. (Just kidding, it would only come up to my shin. That lady was tiny.)
Anyway, the donation idea was great, mom. Eric loved his dogs so much.
Jake has been struggling a lot with insomnia and sleep paralysis; it sounds like his subconscious is working overtime when he does finally sleep, trying to make sense of the trauma we’ve been through.
One night, he was having a terrible anxiety dream with a lot of nightmarish aspects to it. In the dream, there was a flash of light at the end of the hall and then Eric walked into his room. There were all our dogs with him–both those who had crossed the Rainbow Bridge and even Molly, our very-much-alive and shedding-her-winter-coat-everywhere German shepherd. Eric was dressed as he always was, in a plaid button down shirt and shorts, and wearing glasses. Jake said he was glowing from the inside out and looked a little younger and thinner. He just smiled at Jake, and all the nightmare stuff vanished; replaced with overwhelming feelings of love.
I like that dream. I like that dream a whole lot. I don’t know what really happens after we die, but I like to think that Eric might be with his dogs and that he can come help us in times of need. Of course, that sort of hope get sticky because I feel like I need him all the time and he’s not appearing to me in dreams, even though I’ve begged and begged. But I’m so glad Jake shared the dream with me, and I’m going to hold onto it and file under, “Things I (Really, Really) Hope are Real.”
Eric didn’t like having his picture taken, but back in 2008 when we were still young and cute, I took a whole bunch telling him I’d keep taking them until he stopped hiding his face and just smiled for me. I want to make a joke here about how I maybe flashed him my boobs or promised sexual favors, but as funny as that would be, I think he just finally gave in and smiled for me. <3
I’m glad I kept pressing that shutter button. I love the whole series, but that one is the best, most natural one. I miss that face more than I can say.