My talk was released two weeks ago. I’ve said in person, in writing, over and over again, that it represents the start of a new chapter. Reactions from people in so many places have confirmed the importance of its message – that we need to talk about our grief, that we need to the tell the truth, that grief needs to be validated and heard. One person wrote to me and said that “a loud voice is what we need,” and another thanked me “for putting a voice to so many who are still held captive in silence.” I am invigorated, emboldened, inspired. This is the beginning.
Yet a few members of my own family prefer the silence. This opening up is not welcome by everyone. It can be uncomfortable. I get that. During a phone call last week with someone important to me, I was told that my message “could be more positive,” that it’s “not healthy to dwell” on the negative, that perhaps I would soon get this “out of my system,” and that I should remember that despite my losses I have “so much to be grateful for.”
Silence is not always self-imposed. Sometimes those of us who want to grieve out loud feel immense pressure to stay quiet and move on. This pressure can be communicated to us in so many ways – when people look away, when words are whispered across quiet rooms, when we are explicitly told not to dwell on negative things. When the people we love most and want to protect seem to fall apart when we talk about the dead.
When I was in the 3rd grade, my teacher walked around the classroom with a thick packet of construction paper. Every child chose a colored piece of paper and a handful of crayons. It was the Friday before Mother’s Day. I sat at my desk a little perplexed with my assignment. I consciously thought about the fact that my mother was missing from my life and I looked around at the children surrounding me, who started drawing rainbows and flowers and writing sweet messages to their mothers without hesitation. After a few minutes, I put crayon to paper and wrote, “I MISS YOU, MOMMY.”
Two days later, my grandmother – my father’s mother, who had stepped in to raise me after my mother’s death – accepted the card with the biggest, most approving smile. She positioned it in front of her face so that she could read it more easily. I fixed my eyes on the back of the paper, which I had folded unevenly. Within seconds, I watched the card flutter to the living room floor. I looked up at my grandmother. Her head had fallen into her hands, and her shoulders shook hard. She stayed that way for awhile. I picked up the card and threw it away. My grandmother and I never talked about what happened or the fact that I put the card into the garbage, where I had decided the evidence of my longing for my mother belonged. My grandmother was taking care of me now, and I needed to reciprocate.
I think it’s possible for reflective human beings to feel more than one thing at a time: sadness and happiness, longing and fulfillment, regret and gratitude, grief and hope. Yes, of course I am grateful for my husband and my children and the life that we have created for ourselves in New York City. Every morning when I drop my kids off at school and say “I love you” as they walk through the building’s front door, I think to myself that we are lucky to be alive and healthy and together, and I know as I walk away that anything can happen. My gratitude for my family, and the joy I feel because they are in my life, intensifies my regret: if only my mother and father were here; if only they could see how much my youngest daughter looks like my dad; if only they could celebrate my upcoming 40th birthday with me.
I can be a voice among the bereaved – a loud voice – and still be grateful for what I have. I can long for what I’ve lost while recognizing what I’ve gained. I can explore the memories and missteps that make my family and me who we are, spotlighting the most poignant moments we’ve shared and saying out loud what I needed then and what I need now, and still love everyone deeply. This isn’t about casting judgment and saying what should have been. It’s about finding empathy now and truly connecting and encouraging bereaved families everywhere to openly listen and openly speak. I am invigorated, emboldened, inspired. This is the beginning.