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"I Can't Imagine: What NOT to Say to Someone Who is Grieving"

Guest Blog by Caryn Anthony

I am honored to publish this beautiful piece by my dear friend, Caryn Anthony, about loss and how to truly connect with people who are grieving. If you have ever worried, "But I just don't know what to say to her," this piece is for you.

“I can’t imagine…”

I have heard that phrase countless times in the last several years since the death of my son Robby. I know people mean well when they say it. They are trying to acknowledge the depth of my loss, and they intend to show compassion, even respect for what it takes to face and endure such pain.

Still, sometimes I’m frustrated by the expression because I know it’s not really true.

After all, haven’t most parents tapped similar fears in their own imagined worst-case scenario? You know the thoughts… Your daughter should have been home half an hour ago – was there a car accident, an alien abduction? Or your son has some unexplained pain or a fever that won’t break – is it just a passing thing or the beginning of something serious? If you’re lucky, everything works out, and you can shake off the images like a fleeting bad dream.

But sometimes, there is no avoiding that terrible place, as we hear in the song “It’s Quiet Uptown” from Hamilton:

There are moments that the words don't reach There is suffering too terrible to name You hold your child as tight as you can And push away the unimaginable

So, if someone says, “I can’t even imagine…”, what I also hear is, “I don’t want to imagine. It is too scary for me to go there. “

I found unexpected dark humor in this dynamic watching Netflix’s “Dead to Me”. The main character’s husband has died in an accident, and her neighbor says, “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through!” The new widow stares back coolly and replies, “Well, it’s like [your husband] died suddenly and violently. (Pause with exasperation) It’s like that.” The thud of that awkward moment is grimly hilarious, and illustrates the typical discomfort people like me encounter as others contend with the blunt facts.

In my own reality, I used to describe myself as every parent’s worst nightmare walking around. And while it sounds facetious or dramatic, I wasn’t really kidding. My son died after several years of relentless advocacy by loving parents, world-class medical care, and his own brave fight. So, my family was an unwanted reminder that sometimes the worst does happen, despite everyone’s best intentions and efforts. That is not a reality most people want to confront…

For me to work through this, I need the support of someone who can imagine this reality or at least is willing to try.

I don’t want to inhabit some foreign territory far, far away from what my loved ones can imagine. I want you sitting here next to me. Loss and grief are wrenching and life-changing, and they are also unavoidable. At some point everyone will be forced to confront the mortality of a loved one, and I’ve learned that you don’t “get over” loss like that. You make room for it in your life.

I realize that this truth about grief can be uncomfortable. Many want to believe that the pain can be overcome or at least avoided. Unfortunately, that is not how it works for me – Robby’s presence permeated my whole life, so reminders of him are also ubiquitous.

I may smile and shed a tear when I hear Queen on the radio, or I watch our favorite zombie television show, or even smell the French fries from his favorite burger spot. As unsettling as these moments can be, I’ve discovered that they are also precious because they help me feel closer to him.

The poet Kahlil Gibran said:

“When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

So, please don’t worry when you see me react. Don’t change the subject or try to cheer me up. My most trusted people are those who understand that this is now part of who I am, and they are in it with me. Instead of being afraid of “reminding me” of something sad, they openly share memories and feelings, and they keep Robby present for me when they say his name.

My capacity to come through this loss is built on finding ways to live with, and sometimes even welcome the unimaginable. And the resilience isn’t just something intrinsic in me – it’s something that grows with the support of people around me. I lean on others who are brave enough to see reality and are ready to stand with me in all the feelings.

There’s no special training required – just show up with your presence and compassion. I want you to ask questions and to listen to the real answers, to laugh and remember the joy, and sometimes to just sit quietly beside me as I live with the unimaginable.

I appreciate Lise’s invitation to join as a guest blogger here, especially because Lise and her family remain a beautiful example of the support I did and still cherish. The shared experience deepened our friendship – now going on 40 years! – to a place that is rich and enduring.

Robby Anthony top left. Author middle row, 2nd from left.

If you’d like to follow Caryn’s writing about the intersection of parenting and caregiving and grief, you can check out her blog “Any Way the Wind Blows” here:

Lise Deguire's gold award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.

1 Comment

May 22, 2021

Beautifully written. I think we have a Western disposition to believe that we should only imagine that which is joyful and it is a mistake. Buddhism teaches us the impermanence attached to all things - good and bad - all which arises shall also pass - and this perspective, when managed through mindful contemplation, can be very grounding and ultimately, healing to those around us who are in need of compassion.

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