When you experience a significant death in your life everyone knows about it, whether you want them to or not. You get the tilted-heads looks of sympathy and questions about how you’re doing with exaggerated intonation: “oooh, how aaaaare you?” People walk on eggshells or check on you constantly or avoid you or whatever. You have the friends who just know and understand and help you through. You have the friends who have no idea what to do and do nothing, or do the ‘wrong’ things. But they all have one thing in common: they know about your loss.
I was 18 when my dad died. I had only needed to say the words out loud once, and then came the comfort that friends told friends and suddenly everyone just knew. They all miraculously appeared at my house and at the funeral. I felt like I would never have to say the words out lout again. And that was in a world before social media!
That summer I had a short-term job far from home, family, and friends. I rented a room in a house full of strangers. Though part of me missed the safety of the friends and family who knew everything that had happened, there was a relief in being surrounded by these strangers. There were no tilted-heads, no awkwardness, no looks to me like I might suddenly burst into tears at any moment, no unwanted advice. Though I felt totally consumed by my own grief, something about being away from everyone who knew gave me control over something again.
Time went on and these people I lived with went from strangers, to roommates, to new friends. I am a totally different person than I had been just months earlier, and yet this was the only person they knew me to be. It was both devastating and liberating. At some point it became clear I couldn’t live in this controlled world forever. I would have to tell these carefree, beer-drinking, college kids that just a few months before moving in with them I had spent weeks on end in the ICU watching my dad die. I dreaded the looks of pity and discomfort that would come, and yet I somehow felt these people couldn’t be “real” friends until they knew.
That was 13 years ago. I hadn’t thought of that summer in many years until I read a post back in February on the blog Finding My New Normal called “When to Drop the ‘Dead Baby’ Bomb”. After losing her first baby at 36 weeks, the author puts into words something I think all grievers can relate to, no matter the type of loss:
“Everything about my current life is the way it is because my son died. Nothing in my life now would be exactly the same if he had lived. Yes, I have my rainbow baby now and to the outside world I’m sure I look just like every other new mother. Only I’m not.”
She goes on to talk about her “safe friends”. They are the friends who knew about her loss, who she never had to explain anything to because they were there for it. And then she talks about meeting new friends after a death:
“None of these people know my story. So within the course of the normal “getting to know you” conversation I have lots of landmines to step over . . . I just never know how much to tell. How much to disclose about my personal tragedy. After all, new friendships are fragile. If you come on too strong, or too fragile, or “too much drama,” you can be written off before you have a chance to get to know someone. But if you wait too long then you can seem fake or insincere. So what to say, and when to say it is a struggle for me. I mean, when is the right time to drop the “dead baby” bomb?”
That summer I finally told my new friends. I wish I could tell some amazing story about how poignant it was, but I honestly barely remember how the conversation played out. What I do remember was lying in bed thinking about the reality that everyone I would ever meet from then on would only know the new me – the dead-dad-me. They would never know my dad. They would never know what I was like before this unbearable pain and existential crisis that would put my life on another path. Overdramatic? Possibly. But true.
Fast forward a few years. I broke up with the boyfriend who I had been dating since my before dad died. He hadn’t known my dad well, but he had known him. Breaking up was the right thing, but a new revelation came with the split: whoever else I would date would never have known my dad. They would never just “know” my story like my “safe friends” did. Whoever else I would date, I would have to tell them these things. I would have to find words to explain who my dad was, who I was because of this, what my grief was.
Grief makes you crazy, death changes your perspective on life, and I was losing the one person who had seen me through that. Joni Mitchell streamed through my head on loop in those days . . . I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad . . . I knew this relationship couldn’t last for ever, and yet it terrified me to imagine building a meaningful relationship with someone who hadn’t known my dad and hadn’t been part of my devastation and despair. It seemed so fundamental to who I was; fundamental to who I am even now.
I didn’t know how I would tell those friends that first summer, but somehow I did. I didn’t know how I would date someone new, who hadn’t been part of my anguish and loss, but somehow I did that too. We like to be practical and helpful here at WYG. Most days we offer suggestions and tips for coping, but not today. Today I’ll just say that often in grief we do things and we have no idea exactly why, when, or how we managed to find the strength to do them. We get out of bed. We “drop the dead-baby bomb”. We learn to say words out loud that we never imagined we would have to say. We help new people meet our loved ones for the first time through our stories and our memories. We discover new best friends who only know the “dead-dad” us, the “dead-husband” us, or the “dead-baby” us. In the words of Robert Frost, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”