“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.”
The opening lines of “It’s Quiet Uptown,” a song featured in the broadway musical “Hamilton” about the untimely death of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton’s son, ring far too true in our community now.
Life is hard, the world can be brutal, and tragedy strikes every day in the lives of so many, much of it slipping past, unnoticed by us.
But every now and then, tragedy hits us here, at home, where we live and move andhave our ordinary, quiet being.
The suffering that is too terrible to name.
There are no words.
There is nothing any of us can do to ease the burden or lighten the load.
There is a hole in the fabric of things, an empty chair at the table, a bedroom left unchanged, laundry in the hamper that still smells like the one we’ve now lost.
The only response to a suffering like this is grief.
Grief is the tax we pay on having loved someone; it is the well into which we pour our love for those we’ve lost for the rest of our lives: a bottomless collection of our tears.
Grief is our love-song about the worth of the one we’ve lost.
Everyone grieves, but not everyone mourns.
Grief is the silent, personal sadness we all feel in the wake of the death of someone we love. Mourning is grief gone public, the out-loud expression of our grief to at least one other person.
Grief and mourning are different for everyone.
Which is part of what makes it hard to find something to say to soothe those whose sadness is so overwhelming.
We are always looking for something to say.
Try searching the phrase, “What to say…” in your search engine, and you’ll find popular searches like “…when someone dies,” or “…when someone is sick,” or “…when someone is depressed.”
Millions of others — not just you! — have had the same impulse to look to the Internet to find something worthwhile and meaningful to say to people who are sad.
May I suggest that you liberate yourself from the pressure to have something to say, and simply show up, stand there, open, tender, loving, honest, and unafraid, saying nothing.
There isn’t anything you can say. So say nothing, be honest about that, and then be there, present and accounted for, with love in your eyes, ready to shoulder the brutal force of death, silent and sure.
I promise you this: your silence will speak volumes.
As a therapist, I have the privilege of sitting beside women and men on their mourning benches, people who are grieving the death of children, of spouses, of parents, of possibilities.
Sometimes, there is talking, laughter in the storytelling, or abject mourning through tears.
But often, we sit together in long, deep silence: the only sound that seems to know anything about what is actually happening.
Don’t be afraid of silence.
And whatever you do, please don’t say any of the following phrases that have gained popularity in our culture, phrases that are meant well, but which fall meaningless, like the dust of dead leaves, at the feet of those whose grief is unimaginable:
I know how you feel.
S/He is in a better place.
God needed another angel in the choir.
God needed another flower in the garden.
S/He isn’t suffering anymore.
This, too, shall pass.
This happens to all of us eventually.
S/He would have wanted it this way.
You seem to be handling this better than I had expected.
You look good, despite the circumstances.
Let me know if you need anything.
Instead, reach out, show up, and if you must say something, try: “I have no idea how much you must be suffering, and there are no words to ease that. But I am here. And I love you. And though you may feel so alone, I am here.”
Then, drop some paper plates, paper towels, toilet paper, a gift card to a locally-owned restaurant, or some bottled water at their front door.
Call, text, send a card, reach out.
Don’t forget about them, and don’t allow the largess of the situation numb you into believing that someone else will be there for them.
We have to be there for them now; they are trying to do the unimaginable.
Dr. Jonathan Eric Carroll, KLPC, NCPC, NCCE, is a state-licensed mental health professional, is an ACPE Psychotherapist, and is the Founder of The Clinic @ The Montgomery in downtown Owensboro. Dr. Carroll serves as the Grief Therapist for six funeral homes in the region. He also co-created and cohosts “You’ll Die Trying,” a podcast available everywhere. Visit www.themontgomeryclinic.com.