This post was originally published on Rage Against the Minivan.
The past two weeks brought sad news of the tragic loss of Hannah’s friends from Minnesota, followed by the death of a young man in the adoption community whose family shares many friends with us. These heartbreaking losses brought this post about the loss of our own child to mind and it seems a good time to share it. In times of sorrow, we may not have the perfect words, and that’s okay.
The morning was cold and it was snowing lightly; a half inch had accumulated on the ground when we left our house on our way to the ski resort atop the Idaho/Montana border. Our daughter was going to visit friends for a few days and this was our meet up spot.
Living in north Idaho, driving in a little snow was nothing new to us. We left the rest of the family sleeping, settled our daughter in with her iPod and fleece blanket, and headed up the highway, travel mugs of coffee in our hands.
Forty-five minutes later we slowly rounded a curve and our car began to slide and pivot sideways. Early on the Saturday morning after Christmas, on that rural highway, we slid in front of the only oncoming car for miles around. In that moment, our lives changed forever.
We were knocked unconscious as the impact blasted windows and spun our car the opposite direction, finally coming to rest on its side. When I became conscious, my husband had his hands on my face, telling me that we had been in an accident and he was going to check on our daughter, Kalkidan.
In the impact, my arm flung out the window and was now pinned under the car; my only view was the shattered windshield and the snow-topped grass near my face. For the next hour, I drifted in and out of awareness as people stopped to help and eventually emergency crews arrived.
At one point I heard my husband say, “Come on Kalkidan, you’re a fighter. You can do this.”
Hours later, in the emergency room, I repeated the question I had already asked many times, “Is my daughter okay?” But this time I said it a little differently, I asked, “Is my daughter alive?”
The kind, gentle trauma doctor held my hand and answered, “No, I’m sorry, she’s not.”
That moment changed my life forever. I became the mother who lost a child. Even today as I write this, I almost feel like I’m writing a story about someone else, because surely, it can’t be true.
Our families and community gathered around us, they planned a beautiful memorial service attended by nearly 1,000 people, prayed for us, fed us, cared for our children, drove me to PT and helped me recover from my injuries, cleaned my house, and most of all, they were present with us and loved us.
Cards and gifts arrived in the mail. Flowers were delivered to our door; one florist came so often that we are now friends.
As I watched my friends care for us, I realized how little I knew about grief, and what to do when a friend loses someone they love. Often we are so afraid of saying the wrong thing, that we say nothing at all.
We see an acquaintance in the grocery store whose husband recently left her, and we turn the other way to avoid the awkward moment of trying to come up with words. We think about mailing a card to a friend who lost her father, but we’re not that close, and we didn’t know him, so really, what would we say?
We want to say just the right thing, find the perfect quote or scripture, put our thoughts into eloquent words, but we don’t have time to put that much thought into it. Or we’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing, that we avoid it all together.
The one thing you should never say to a grieving parent? It’s saying nothing at all.
Cards with the phrase, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” are lovely and show that you care. Some of my favorite cards were the ones that said, “There are just no words…,” or “I don’t even know what to say….”
The truth is, there were no words, and even I didn’t know what to say.
And do you know the amazing thing? Not one person said the wrong thing. Not one.
The people who stumbled over their words, or spoke awkwardly with their eyes avoiding mine, even they did not say the wrong thing. If you are saying you care, the exact words just don’t matter.
So write that note, make that call, hug a friend and tell her you’re sorry for what she is going through. Be with her in the midst of her suffering; that is all you need to do.