Living alone and being single, I often find myself in situations where I am meeting people for the first time. I belong to walking groups, a writing group, a women’s business group and a dining club, so it is common for me to find myself facing the normal ‘getting to know you’ type questions that people ask when you first meet.
I don’t walk up to people and say ‘Hi, I’m Anne and my 23 year old son died 7 years ago, and by the way he took his own life’. However, the fact I do not have a living child often naturally comes into conversations, as at my time of life most people will tell you about their children and how much they delight in their grandchildren. I refuse to NOT mention my son just to avoid the awkward silences that often follow, and I have just got used to answering the question about children by saying that ‘yes, I do have a son, but unfortunately he died when he was 23, 7 years ago’. I don’t always volunteer the suicide bit unless it feels relevant.
Some people will react by saying ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘how sad’ either of which is perfectly acceptable and is appreciated. Just a small acknowledgement of what I have just courageously shared is all I really need.
However I often find myself amazed at the number of people who just say nothing in response. I mean – nothing! The reason I was prompted to write this blog is because this happened to me recently twice in the space of a week and it has been niggling away at me.
The first time was last Saturday when I went to a new writing group and met 3 women for the first time. We all introduced ourselves and I told them I started writing when I started a blog, and then went onto to do a journalism degree. When someone asked what my blog is about, I told them that tragically my son had taken his own life 7 years ago and I started this blog to write about my experience to help others and as therapy. They listened and I saw the now familiar ‘omg she just mentioned a dead son’ look of blind panic, then they just moved on to the next person and talked about something else.
The second time I was out for a meal and found myself on a table with 3 ladies, 2 of which I had not met before. This time there weren’t any questions or introductions but the conversation turned to holidays and dogs and I mentioned I go to the Scillies every year, then added I go there on the anniversary of when I lost my son as it helps me have a time of quiet reflection. Again conversation just flowed on with no acknowledgement of what I had just shared.
Sometimes when this happens I feel like interrupting and saying ‘excuse me – did you just hear me say that my son died?’, but of course I don’t. I don’t blame them, I just think as a society we are really crap about talking about death, and especially suicide.
It sometimes feels as if you have mentioned something really inappropriate, but death is part of life. Who knows how I would react if I hadn’t experienced the loss of a child, I am not blaming or judging but just really want people to know how it feels when you share something so personal and emotional and there is no response because the person listening has been blindsided and just doesn’t know what to say in that moment.
I’m not sure why it bothers me. What do I want? I don’t want pity, I don’t want sympathy, I don’t want people to cry and weep and say how awful it is. I think I just want an acknowledgement that they have heard what I have just shared. Nothing more, nothing less.
It would also be comforting if they would ask me about him. ‘Oh how sad, tell me about him, what was his name, what was he like, you must miss him?’
I want to talk about my dead son as much as you want to talk about your living, breathing children and your grandchildren. I don’t want to dwell on his death but I want to share funny stories and recount happy times, why shouldn’t I? I know it can make people feel uncomfortable but I think the more we can make an effort to feel more at ease when talking about death and the deceased, sadness and tragedy, the more we can help each other.
So the next time you meet someone and they tell you about a deceased child, spouse, parent, friend, sibling, just pause and say a few words of acknowledgement so that person can feel comforted and supported. It is a cliché but it is true it’s better to risk saying the wrong thing than saying nothing.