I went to a new dentist today. When we were having our initial consult it came out that my husband had died. The dentist was instantly sympathetic; it turns out his first wife died at age 39 from a brain tumor. This was twenty years ago but as he talked I could tell he was still sad about losing her.
We talked about grief a little, and then he said, “Our culture has a real problem facing death. Have you noticed how people avoid talking to you?”
“Yeah I notice,” I replied.
“My wife was quite well known and I couldn’t believe how many people would see me at an event or somewhere after she had died and wouldn’t say anything about her death, they’d just talk about the weather or something. Like they were afraid they were going to say the wrong thing so they said nothing.”
I told him, “What I started doing was just bringing it up myself because I couldn’t stand it. I’d say, ‘I know it’s really awkward but believe me, I’m used to having this awkward conversation now so let’s get it over with.’”
“People didn’t seem to understand that I wanted to talk about it. And when you don’t it’s like there’s this elephant in the room,” he said earnestly.
“And if you have some kind of ongoing relationship with the person, that elephant is just going to keep growing until it crowds out any possibility of relationship.”
Recently a friend wrote me an email after reading the post in which I offered some suggestions on how to treat a grieving person. She thought people were paralyzed by their fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. And she also thought that each grieving person would feel differently about this. I know these are both true. But here was this dentist, twenty years after his wife’s death, talking as if it had happened last year. It had clearly been traumatic for him that people had not spoken to him about his wife.
Last week I read a memoir by a widow called Grieving: A Love Story. The author, Ruth Coughlin, worked as an editor in a newspaper office. After her husband died and she went back to work, half of her co-workers offered her their condolences but the other half avoided her at all costs. A friend had warned her that would happen. She was as bothered by it as my dentist.
This awkwardness is part of our culture’s confused relationship with death. Born from our denial and segregation of death from ordinary life, we try to hold ourselves apart from death whenever it comes close. It’s like there’s this voice whispering in our ear: “If I don’t speak to that woman whose husband died, I won’t risk getting contaminated by death.” That sounds irrational but there’s some dynamic like that at work in our minds.
There is a couple that Arthur and I knew casually. Over the few years we’ve known them I have become better friends with the woman. After Arthur died, I have seen this couple a few times, and the man has not mentioned Arthur’s death once. This is where I learned about the elephant—every time I saw this man there was the unacknowledged reality of Arthur’s absence right in my face. And that elephant kept getting bigger until I was pushed out of his life; I haven’t seen him in a long time.
I think what’s crucial for a bereaved person is to have the death acknowledged. When someone doesn’t speak to me about the death they’ve left our relationship, whatever it may be, frozen at the moment of my husband’s death. So they and I are both reminded of that moment every time we see each other. That’s actually worse than getting it over with and speaking about it for a few minutes. All you have to do is say, “I know. I’m sorry.”