Talking About It
By Donna Rothert, PhD
“If we knew each other’s secrets, what comforts we should find.” John Churton Collins
“You know what truly aches? Having so much inside you and not having the slightest clue of how to pour it out.” Karen Quan, Write Like No One is Reading
Years ago, sometime after I became an adult, but before I had experienced much in the way of loss, I had a doctor’s appointment with someone who was covering for my regular provider. I wasn’t there for anything urgent and I don’t remember many details about the visit. I do, however, remember one thing very clearly. In the midst of the chit-chat between me and this 40ish physician, she mentioned something sweet that her daughter had done. She then gently added “she’s passed away since then.” After this comment, she continued to talk and move through the rest of the appointment in a calm, warm and professional manner.
I’d like to tell you that I said something kind, respectful and connecting in response to the doctor’s statements, but I highly doubt it. I just remember being floored by the mention of a dead child. I felt stunned, sad and awkward. It probably showed. It was hard for me to imagine that this woman had gotten up that day, had breakfast, dressed for work and was keeping a not all that consequential appointment with me, all while her daughter was dead. It was also startling to me that she could talk about her daughter in such a natural and beautiful way. After all these years, I still think about it. It was a challenging, memorable and helpful moment for me.
“Talk about it.” It’s advice often given to the bereaved. We probably all have ideas as to why this is a good idea. It can feel relieving to share feelings instead of having them bottled up inside. Talking about the loss can also be a way to connect to others and to feel less alone. Better talking than acting out in some more negative fashion such as overworking, drinking or drugs, right?
It may also be an important way for us to take another look at ourselves and acknowledge who and where we are.
In the pregnancy loss group I used to facilitate, whenever a new member joined, each member, beginning with those who had been in the group for awhile, would tell their baby loss story in whatever level of detail they felt comfortable doing so. Sometimes this brought up anxiety for people as they anticipated what it might feel like to revisit the events that they experienced as so acutely painful. There were usually tears and sometimes trembling voices.
However, as time went on and people retold their stories, they would often comment on how their stories changed as they revisited and shared them. There were still tears and sometimes trembling voices. But there were also different details noted as more or less important and changes in emotional resonance. Over time, group members seemed to hold their loss less as a “hot potato” or cut-off portion of their lives and more of an integrated part of their history.
That single comment made by someone I met only once helped me because it challenged the way I thought about grief and what it must be like to lose someone so critical to one’s identity and happiness. It felt like a significant dispatch from one woman’s experience in the field of grief. The doctor helped me consider the possibility that a person can live with a profound absence in her heart without having her heart close down entirely. She showed me an example of a person respecting her own grief, her lost child and her ongoing life.
Of course, I don’t know what the physician’s mention of her daughter and her loss did for her. But that one encounter made me think that an ongoing conversation about one’s loss may be the way to go. The conversation may be a lot of monologues interspersed with dialogues. The audience may be one or larger. It may have many twists, turns and moods to it. It may make people uncomfortable. If may help them immensely. It may do both. It may help connect some dots and fill in some colors to help others understand us. It may give us a clearer view of ourselves.
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