Soon after we put up How to write a beautiful condolence card to someone who has lost a child on the website, I sent the link to Diane Brown of ‘Diane and Greg’ and thanked her, again, for writing us such a wonderful letter after our son Jimmy died. I received a letter from Diane a week later and I’d like to share some more of her wisdom:
“I learned following my father’s death in 1988 several do’s and don’ts on how to interact with friends and acquaintances who have suffered a loss. Until that point in my life (I was 33 at the time) I hadn’t really experienced loss. I realized that those who are in tremendous grief always have that on their shoulders. It is always present in their soul because their loved one is always on their mind. Others around you are usually afraid to mention it for fear it will stir up a sad emotion. However, I discovered that it is the opposite. If a person mentions their name or asks how you are doing, it actually adds comfort because you realize that someone else is acknowledging your grief.”
David Brooks, one of the more sensible and articulate journalists I’ve encountered, wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times in January of 2014, The Art of Presence. He explores the Woodiwiss family’s journey of suffering the loss of one daughter in a horseback riding accident and catastrophic injury to their younger daughter a few years later when struck by a car as she rode home from work on her bicycle. Their mother described the days “when you feel like a quivering, cowardly shell of yourself, when despair yawns as a terrible chasm, when fear paralyzes any chance for pleasure. This is just a fight that has to be won, over and over again.” Brooks inquires “how those of us outside the zone of trauma might better communicate with those inside the zone.”
Trauma zone is a good choice of words. When we received the news from the young woman from the Medical Examiner’s office who showed up on our doorstep on that Saturday in August of 2008 that our 24 year old son Jimmy had been struck and killed early that morning by an automobile as he walked home from a friend’s house, I immediately experienced a profound physical sensation. I literally felt something hit my side and shove me onto a different track—playing field—and the previous rules of engagement for how people would interact with us, and we with them—were now all changed. We were gravely wounded in a new world.
Yet, this gigantic wave of pain and suffering also hit other family members, Jimmy’s wide circle of friends, our friends, and all those people who touched Jimmy’s and our lives over the years. Thousands of people. The wave hit people we didn’t even know, but were nonetheless deeply impacted because our son’s death triggered their grief for loved ones lost. I think reverberation is the word for that. And as the Woodiwisses observed, we were “…awed by the number of people, many of whom had been mere acquaintances, who showed up and offered love…and disoriented by a number of close friends who simply weren’t there, who were afraid or too busy.” Or simply didn’t know what to do. I get that.
To this day one of my cousins, someone I thought I was close to, has never said or written anything to me about the loss of our son. Several months after Jimmy died I stumbled upon a photograph of my cousin’s youngest sister taken a few months before she was killed in a horse jumping accident at the age of twelve. I sent it to my cousin. I was pathetic. I thought ‘he will appreciate this gesture and reach out to me and we’ll talk about Jimmy.’ Nope. Nothing.
My wife Hilary dreaded going to the local grocery store those weeks and months after Jimmy left us. Invariably, she would see someone she knew and, on too many occasions, the person would pretend she didn’t see Hilary and turn her cart into another aisle or flee the store so she wouldn’t have to talk about “it.” Hilary was deeply hurt and also angry. Through her tears she exclaimed “I hate being treated as a victim!” She found a grocery store outside the neighborhood.
I’m guilty of the same offense. Four months before we lost Jimmy, the middle son of some friends of ours died of an accidental drug overdose in his freshman dorm room at USC in Los Angeles. Shortly after his death I saw the dad, Gary, at the U.S. Open golf tournament at Torrey Pines South in San Diego. Just like the women in the grocery store, I spun around and hi-tailed it the other way so I wouldn’t have to talk to him. I didn’t get far. Two months later we were hugging, crying and mourning the loss of our boys at Jimmy’s memorial service. I will never forget my hand holding the back of his head with his face buried in my shoulder.
A couple of months after the service, we had dinner with two of our closest friends whom we’ve known since college. We talked about their kids, also a boy and girl almost identical in ages to ours, trips they had planned and everything else except Jimmy. Not once in the two hours we spent with them did they ever mention Jimmy or ask us how we were doing. When Hilary and I got into our car to drive home we burst into tears. It was as though Jimmy no longer existed.
This is juxtaposed with our good friends, Penny and Frank Dudek, who had us over for dinner every Saturday night for over a year and always encouraged us to talk about Jimmy and relive our favorite memories of him, and listened—and sometimes squirmed—about the many ways we approached our grief including our experiences with mediums, shamans and Indian guides.
Very early on, Hilary’s aunt and uncle, Cathy and Brud, flew from Florida to have lunch with us at the La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla. This was the sole purpose of their trip. They had walked our valley. Forty years earlier their sixteen year old son drowned in his bathtub— drugs may have been involved. Our grief was so raw and painful. At one point during lunch Hilary asked “Do you ever stop thinking about your son—that he died—does the pain ever go away?” Uncle Brud in his prime was one of the finest heart surgeons in the country, a strong man who spent his career on the edge of life and death. With tears streaming down his face, he reached for Hilary’s hands and told her in his sophisticated Southern drawl, “Oh darlin’—you never forget—you don’t want to forget—you will always love ‘em and they always love you.’’ All four of us were crying at this point.
When you are with or see someone who has lost a child, it is important to keep in mind that in those first few days, months and even years, the elephant is always in the room. The parent’s pain, heartache and shock might as well be a deep, red gash running down the middle of his face. Don’t look away. Don’t pretend it isn’t there or act like it didn’t happen. I get how hard it is to do that. I’ve been on both sides of that fence and I’m ashamed of how badly I handled my encounters BJ—Before Jimmy.
Here’s an actual case study that played out three weeks after we lost Jimmy.
Tony sees me in the gym we’ve both attended religiously the past ten years. We are friends, but not real close. Gym rats with conversations that are pretty light. Tony’s first thought is “oh shit, there’s Casey. His son died three weeks ago. Struck by a car? Young guy. He must be close to out of his mind. How can he possibly get through this? I couldn’t do it.” And his next thought is “I’ll suck it up, say hi, but I won’t mention Jimmy. Casey doesn’t want to talk about Jimmy. That will make him feel worse.”
This is the first time I’ve been to the gym since Jimmy died. My head is still in a fog, but I need to stay in shape. It may be the only thing that will keep me sane. I’m nervous. Who knows about Jimmy? Does everyone know Jimmy died? Why would they? There’s Tony. Does he know? He’s walking up to me and just said “hi, how’s it going?” He seems tight. Maybe he knows. Should I say something? No. That will make Tony uncomfortable. I don’t want to drag him into my nightmare. Jimmy and his death never comes up. We each head off to do our thing.
Tony and I can laugh about that encounter now because both of us learned some valuable lessons that day. In the age of the internet, ubiquitous mobile devices and our insatiable hunger for gossip, the news of Jimmy’s death travelled fast, wide and virtually everyone who knew me, even casually, knew what happened to Jimmy within 48 hours. When I walked into the gym my elephant was with me and I would venture a guess that almost everybody saw both of us. My first mistake was to assume otherwise.
Tony made the wrong call about me not wanting to talk about it. Why wouldn’t I want to talk about Jimmy when that was the only thing I could think of? My mind was entirely taken over by his death. It was like a bad song stuck on repeat. No, it was more than that. Much worse.
I knew Tony knew. I could tell by the way he looked at me—the unusual stress in his customarily jocular voice. It more than just hurt Tony didn’t say anything. Didn’t he know how horrible I was feeling? I too felt so much the victim. Is death all that Tony can see around me? Did I die too in the eyes of my friends? I did, a bit. Part of me died. I know that. Is that my new name—Casey Who Lost His Son Gauntt. Were me and my elephant not welcome anymore? Crazy thoughts? Not really.
Tony should have said something. But do you know what my second mistake was? Not bringing it up myself. When Tony asked me how I was doing, I should have said, “Tony, I don’t know if you heard, but I lost my son three weeks ago.” When Hilary and I had dinner with our friends, rather than crawling into our dark place, we should have said something like “We were looking at some photos of our trip to Sun Valley with you guys when Jimmy and Greg were five. Remember how excited they were to catch their first fish.” We are victims, but that doesn’t mean we have to act like victims. I assumed Tony didn’t want to talk about it. My mistake is I didn’t understand he simply didn’t know how.
I learned pretty fast that when I was with someone who I knew, knew, if they didn’t bring up Jimmy early into the conversation, I would. And they were always—always—so relieved and appreciative that I did. Once that door was opened they dove right through with a depth of pent up emotion and sympathy. They were not only grateful, they were often anxious to talk about it. They lost someone close, or knew someone else who had. Everyone has lost someone close, or soon will. Death, loss and grief are all around us, with profound impacts on our lives, and yet it seems most just can’t talk about it. Guys are the worst. Why is that? Are we afraid we will seem weak if we don’t buck up, soldier on, put it all behind us and get on with life? Let me tell you something. The strongest guys I know are the ones who can and will talk about it.
Not one person said a word to me about Jimmy my first day back at the gym. As I was leaving I ran into Danny Davis, a former Navy Seal and my trainer for many years. He looked at me and he, too, didn’t say anything. He just walked up to me with arms outstretched and wrapped me up tight. I burst into tears. After a minute or so he said “Are you hungry? Let’s go grab a sandwich.” We talked for over an hour about Jimmy. And still do. Danny Davis is one of the strongest guys I know.
Postscript: And to close the loop with our good friends who never mentioned Jimmy during our dinner with them in San Clemente. The following Monday I got the call from Emily Sue Buckberry and a few days later the letter from my father that was waylaid for 40 years arrived in my mailbox, as told in the story of The Letter. A month after that we had dinner once again with our friends, same restaurant. I told them the story of The Letter, the emotional dam broke, we all cried and talked about our best memories of Jimmy the rest of the evening. They bemoaned our previous get together. “We didn’t know what to do. We thought it would be better for you not to talk about Jimmy. It hurt us, too, not to mention him. Thank you for showing us it’s ok to talk about that boy we love so much.”
It’s much better than OK.