I was lying on a training table getting some post-surgery treatments on my hip when my physical therapist delivered that question. I only had a couple of seconds to decide my reply before things got awkward. Clearly Dr. Kahl Goldfarb didn’t “know,” or he never would have asked me. It wasn’t the first time, but I was still raw as I raced through the decision tree. Do I want to go there right now? Will this be upsetting for him? Will it be easier to tell a half-truth? Do I have the energy to open this door? What’s lurking on the other side?
Our great friend Ludie Driscoll—the funniest woman we know and a fellow survivor—had a co-worker at Bank of America who always had her answer at the ready, “Three living.” Too direct, perhaps?
There was this long-booked cruise in the Greek Islands with our good friends Terri and Bill Stampley that was scheduled to depart six weeks after Jimmy was killed. We bailed. The thought of being asked that question a hundred times by total strangers was simply too overwhelming.
Why is the question so hard? The answer is all too obvious for us parents who have lost kids. My psychologist likes to use the word reverberatory for things or events that drive us back to our harsh reality that Jimmy is dead. Holidays, his birthday and angel date; celebrations by his friends—weddings and, now, bringing new children in the world; sitting on an airplane next to someone that might be his age were he with us today. And some things that just come out of nowhere—a Kings of Convenience tune on the radio; that crumpled Banana Republic T-Shirt in the back of my dresser drawer I kept from the backpack Jimmy brought home that night. It is so hard to face, especially early on—and I’m talking years, not months. The pain and anguish comes flooding in—or more aptly erupts like molten lava in constant search of a crack in our crust. There are a lot of cracks. He’s not going to show up on our doorstep tomorrow. “Sorry I was gone for a while.” His life here is over.
We can self-manage most of these triggers in the solitude of our home, in the car or in the office. We can close the door and cry, or turn up the volume and wail over the melodic harmonies. We can respectfully decline the invitation to a wedding that many of Jimmy’s friends will attend. We can put on the headphones and pretend to be absorbed in our book so the person sitting next to us on the plane won’t start up a conversation. Of course, that doesn’t make the pain go away—but we own it, and we don’t have to share it or dump it on anyone else. Or so we so foolishly might think.
But when someone asks So, do you have kids? Oh, shit. You can’t pretend you didn’t hear, or change the subject. You just lost control of the situation. Someone just breached the walls of the fort you’ve worked so hard to build to protect yourself. With five words! The lava has burst through, and your face is already blathering away. You could run, unless you are lying on the training table. What do you do?
My two seconds were up and Kahl had stopped kneading my hip. I went with the same answer I gave Emily Sue Buckberry when she called me three months after Jimmy’s accident with the news of the letter she had kept written to me 40 years earlier by my father. (that story is told in The Letter-The Film)
“I have two. We have a daughter, Brittany, who lives nearby with her husband, Ryan. And I don’t know how to tell you this, but nine months ago our 24 year old son, Jimmy, was struck by a car and killed as he was walking home from a party.”
His two seconds began to tick off the clock, but it felt much longer. Time slowed down by that invisible, powerful, force that accompanies a step into the realm of raw grief and absolute truth. Mask after mask seized Kahl’s face betraying the emotions he so desperately tried to conceal: shock, horror, self-doubt-do I have the capacity for that pain?-indecisiveness-Oh my God, what do I say?
Time was up. He gained control of his eyes, face and voice. They brimmed with compassion.
“Casey, I am so terribly sorry.” He could have stopped there, and that would have been OK. Instead he jumped into the middle of our pool of pain with all his clothes on. “How are you doing? How is your family? Tell me more about your son.”
We spent the next forty minutes—way beyond my allotted appointment slot— locked in deep conversation; entirely unexpected and so rare among guys who barely know one another. I shared with him the details of Jimmy’s last night; his rising star; the devastating impact on my wife and daughter; our desperate search for healing and to stay connected with Jimmy that had led us to a medium, shaman and Indian guide; and Ms. Buckberrry’s uncanny role in reconnecting me with my dad who fired a bullet into his brain all those years ago.
Kahl then told me of his suffering the recent loss of his mother, his and his new bride’s aspirations to have children and their trepidation of bringing new life into this unsettled world; his motivations to succeed and be a good husband and, hopefully one day, a good father. And many other things that came out in a torrent. He actually thanked me for telling him about Jimmy, because that permitted him to share with me some things he had pressed down deep inside of himself for too long.
What did I Learn? This was the beginning of a very important lesson for me. Nine months out and I remained very focused and consumed by my loss. I had no room for anybody else’s suffering. Of course, mine trumped—I may need to take that word out of my vocabulary—all others. Wrong. Everyone has or will lose someone very close to them—a grandparent, parent, sibling, or best friend—or is close to someone who has suffered loss. Jimmy’s friends grieved his early departure mightily—still do. We all suffer something.
And my fear that bringing up Jimmy’s death to a friend or a stranger would be upsetting to them is largely unfounded. Sure, there’s that moment of shock and pain when I tell someone for the first time. It’s horrible, frightening, startling, _____[insert your worse adjective]. But, people want to talk about “it”—loss, death. We need to talk about it. However, our culture has deeply ingrained in us this need to “move on,” “let go,” and “get over it.” That’s what’s best, right? Complete bull shit. Death is a fact of life. Why in the heck can’t we talk about it?
Here’s something I’ve learned from my conversation with Kahl and so many others. When you talk about the other side of this life with someone, there isn’t much else that is so bonding, connecting and revealing. Truly talking about “it” and becoming a compassionate witness to someone else’s suffering, is one of the most powerful ways we can move beyond the veneer—the disguise we slip into every day of who we think we are and how we want others to perceive us—and catch a glimpse of our souls—our true selves.
In those few minutes, Kahl and I moved quickly past therapist-patient and doctor-lawyer, to good friends. With that one spoken truth—I have two—the door was opened and we both walked through it. That door is now forever open for us.
Do I always answer “We have two children?” ‘If I’m being honest’ (thank you Simon Cowell), no I don’t. If I’m just making small talk with someone I’m pretty sure I’ll never see again, most likely I’ll just go with the half-truth, “We have a daughter.” And then go light and mention the grandkids. If some unsuspecting soul should come back with the follow up question, “Any other kids?” Really? In that case, well, they asked for it and I tell them about Jimmy. I continue to be pleasantly surprised what a “door-opener” that is, and how the conversation quickly goes very deep. I’ve never had someone respond “Why the hell did you tell me that!”
Of course I’ll come clean with a friend or a colleague I haven’t seen in a while. It’s been eight years now, and I’m amazed by the number of people I thought most certainly would have heard about Jimmy’s death through the grapevine. My heart actually aches for them because their shock is as fresh as if Jimmy died the day before. They haven’t had the years to wear it like us.
Should you take that question out of your vocabulary? Of course not. It’s generally a wonderful and expected topic for conversation and odds are remote you will get an answer that will rock you back on your heels. But if you do, don’t run away or shut the conversation down. Otherwise you will miss the opportunity to connect with someone in a profoundly deep and beautiful way.
As we wrote in Suffering Is the Only Honest Work, and because of all the wonderful things that have been revealed to us, I know we never really lose the ones we love. We can find them and, believe me, they find us.
We will always have two children.