All posts by maginlasovgregg

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A Genealogy of Loss

1. My grandmother’s first child was born in August 1942. He died in January 1943. The word baby appears at the top his tombstone. The age 4 ½ months appears on the bottom.

2. He died in the same hospital where he was born. He died in the hospital where my mother was born eleven years later.

3. He died in the hospital where my sister gave birth to her first child. A boy, born in August.

4. All of my grandmother’s granddaughters have given birth except for me. Their first children have been boys.

5. Eleven months after she lost her son, my grandmother gave birth to a girl. She named her daughter for her lost son. Beverly. Bernard.

6. Beverly and Bernard had blonde hair, blue-green eyes. Seven letters in each of their names.

7. Family systems psychologists believe patterns repeat in families. Behaviors duplicate. Addictions multiply. We choose our partners based on our parents, our siblings, our grandparents. We echo their patterns, or repeat them, or break them. Lately, I have been wondering about those patterns. I have been wondering if we inherit misfortune, the way we inherit eye color, hair color, left handedness.

8. How else to explain the patterns of misfortune that cycle through families, a genealogy of loss? Or specifically, how else to explain the patterns of misfortune that cycle through my family, all the sad coincidences?

9. Some researchers believe anxiety travels in our genes. Others says it doesn’t. Who can really know?

10. In college, when I was overwhelmed, my mother told me to make lists.

11. She said, “Once it’s down on paper, you can make sense of anything.”

12. So here’s what I know:

13. When Bernard started to cry, my grandmother called the doctor. She told him her son kept pulling on his ear. She did not believe the doctor’s over-the-phone diagnosis of an ear infection. The doctor did not listen to her persistent pleas. I am afraid the doctor perceived her as a complainer. I am afraid he was a man who did not perceive a woman as credible.

14. When I was pregnant, I started writing about Bernard.

15. I do not know why. Maybe I was afraid I was going to miscarry. Maybe I already knew I would. (Intuition runs in the family.) Maybe I wanted to understand my grandmother in a new way –– mother-to-mother.

16. When I was pregnant, I requested Bernard’s death certificate.

17. A few days later, I started to bleed.

18. My husband tells me correlation does not necessitate causation. He is an ENTJ on the Myers Briggs. I am an INFJ, the most intuitive personality type.

19. A midwife examined me on a Friday afternoon. She told me I’d have to wait until Monday to receive my lab test results. She would not tell me I was having a miscarriage because she did not want to “be wrong and look stupid.”

20. Her doubt fed mine.

21. Even after I peed on a pregnancy test stick and received a negative result, I doubted the intuition that ripped through me.

22. When Monday came, I called to complain about the midwife. I asked for a written apology. My family tragedy was not about her self-perception or lack of confidence or whatever she had going on in her head that day.

23. I am still waiting. I have, however, received a bill for the trans vaginal ultrasound she performed, a procedure that women identify as traumatic. I had two trans vaginal ultrasounds in one week.

24. Bernard died on January 4, 1943. A Monday.

25. Beverly’s first and only son was born in January 1966. He was 46 when he died. His mother was 69.

26. I was out of town when Bernard’s death certificate arrived, but my husband e-mailed me a photo.

27. The cause of death is adrenal hemorrhage caused by bacterial meningitis. No ear infection recorded.

28. The family buried Bernard on June 5, 1943. They had to wait because the ground was frozen solid that winter. Jewish custom is to bury the dead within 24 to 48 hours.

29. All winter and spring, Bernard’s body lay in a freezer, in a morgue.

30. By his funeral, my grandmother was already pregnant with Beverly. I imagine her standing at the grave, full-bellied and overfull of grief. How did she stand there? How did she not slide into the same darkness that held her son?

31. Five years later, she delivered a second son on June 6. Her son lived past infancy. He has survived two sisters and one brother, a mother, a father, a nephew.

32. In Hebrew School, our teachers said ancient rabbis did not consider a child to be a child until it cried. They said a child was not a child until the eighth day, when circumcision was performed, or a name was given. At 13, I thought this sounded like a clever rule. Now, not so much.

33. Jewish mystics believe the number 36 is a symbol for life multiplied. Double chai, it’s called. I conceived at 36. I miscarried at 36.

34. My grandmother lost a child in 1943.

35. I lost someone who has no name in 2017. I lost hope, possibility, my last shreds of faith.

36. But I am making a list. I am trying to make sense of it all.

Bubbie with Bernard

 

 

Why Silence Is the Wrong Response

We had a neighbor who never said anything after my mother died. I kept waiting for her to say, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I’m sad your mother died.” Each time I ran into her, I expected her to offer a condolence. But she never said a word.

This woman was not a distant neighbor. She lived a few houses down. As a girl, I played with her children. She fed me at her dining room table. She told me stories about her own childhood.

Now, when I think about her, I do not remember the nice things she did. I remember her silence. I remember how her silence hurt me.

When she failed to acknowledge my mother’s death, my neighbor also failed to acknowledge my mother’s life. Her silence angered me. Her silence amplified my fear that my mother would not be remembered.

You see, the word remember means to reconstruct, to put back together. Remember is the opposite of dismember.

When a person remembered my mother, that person reconstructed the part of my mother that mattered. That person revealed the impact of my mother’s spirit in a world where her body would be forever absent. But silence erased her completely.

Silence is how the dead die twice.

A few weeks ago, I shared my post “How to Comfort the Bereaved” on Facebook. A few people commented that silence was the best response to bereavement. They reasoned that when we are silent in the face of another’s loss, we are safe. We do not risk saying the wrong thing.

I liked these responses because I understood their intent. I believed people genuinely believe they are doing the right thing by staying silent.

But I need to say now that I believe silence is the wrong response. I interpret silence as erasure. I interpret silence as cowardly. I interpret silence as taking the easy way out. Even well intended silence can have this effect.

We are not to blame for our silences. Modern society does not teach us how to speak openly about death or how to comfort the bereaved in meaningful ways. So we must teach ourselves.

In that spirit, here are a five things people have done or said that brought me comfort during a time of grief.

1. Say the word died. Do not say “passed away” or “met her maker” or anything else that belongs in a children’s book or cartoon. When you say died or any of its variants (death, dead, die) you reverse the spell of cultural denial that hangs over death for many Westerners. When you say died, you make the the subject of death less taboo, less shameful. You make it easier to talk about this normal bodily process that happens to everyone. You make grief and death less confusing

2. Be present. Invite a grieving person to lunch, to take a walk, or to another low key, low stakes one-on-one social event. After my mother died, lunch dates with family and friends saved me. Sometimes, I cried at the table but I also remembered what my life looked like before my loss. I remembered I used to be a girl who did normal things like eat pizza and laugh. I also glimpsed a little of my future: I could again be a girl who laughed and ate pizza. I could reconstruct my life around my loss.

3. Tell a story. If you knew the person who has died, share a story about what that person meant to you. At my mother’s shiva, my close friends told stories about my mother, stories I’d never heard until that day. From these stories, I learned my mother had relationships with my friends. They trusted and valued her. These stories affirmed something I needed to hear, that my mother would live beyond my own memories. She’d live in theirs too.

4. Send a card. If you do not know what to say, let the card speak for you and sign your name at the bottom. When you send a card, you let a grieving person know that the loss has not gone unnoticed by you. You relieve a grieving person from the burden of having to tell you about the loss. My sister saved a stack of all the sympathy cards we received after our mother died. I keep them in my attic now. Once a year, I look through each card and remember how many lives my mother touched. I realize the full impact of her legacy will never be known.

5. Say “I’m sad.”  The more common expression “I’m sorry for your loss” is not a terrible thing to say, yet it can feel like pity. But saying “I’m so sad X died,” extends compassion. Did you know compassion literally means “to suffer with?” Compassion is not supposed to be easy. Culture tells us to deny suffering and sadness, but grief lets us reclaim them. When we say, “I’m sad,” we turn away from pity. We turn toward empathy.

Grief Songs

When my mother was dying, I listened to Patsy Cline. “Crazy.” I Fall to Pieces.” Sweet Dreams.” Her songs set the soundtrack to my grief. I listened to them when I wrote in a D.C. apartment I shared with two Scripps Howard interns.  At the time, my mother was not yet dead. So my grief was anticipatory. But we didn’t have that concept back then. Anticipatory grief.  I had no language to orient me. I kept silent.

Patsy’s songs vocalized what I could not say. She sang of lost loves and unrequited loves and vanished dreams. She sang of desire and brokenness. She sang of memory’s cohering power.

Patsy didn’t write her songs. But she made them her own. When she sang them, she sounded like she was on the verge of weeping. The word I’d use now to describe her sound is mournful. Her voice ached, and that ache mirrored the pain pulsing in my own heart, a pain I could barely acknowledge as true.

I’ve always found it difficult to listen to music when I am grieving. So many songs and artists have felt like an affront to my sorrow, or like betrayal. But Patsy’s music feels like an affirmation, like I have permission to be happy and sad in the same breath. She relieves my guilt. She assures me I am not alone. She reminds me we all have something to mourn.

I now live a few blocks from an apartment where Patsy lived with her first husband, the one from whom she acquired the Cline name. I have walked the same streets she walked. I have seen the same architecture, the same trees.

I find it strange to think of myself sharing a literal path with her, even if her music has accompanied me on the path I’ve walked alone for fifteen years, a path that started when my mother began to die.

We often think of death as an event, and sometimes it is. A terrible accident or crime. But death can also be a process that takes years or days or months to culminate. In my mother’s case, we had three months from when her kidneys began to fail until she died. Three months where neither of us said the word dying. If we spoke it aloud, we would make it true. Also, the word dying felt false.

Because even as she experienced deadly organ failure, my mother was alive. She was living in the same ways she’d lived most of her adult life, although restricted by dialysis and insulin dependence.

She woke up each morning and made her Dunkin Donuts coffee. She watched “Good Morning America” and read The Baltimore Sun. She clipped Susan Reimer columns for me. She called her mother. She called me.

She listened to me complain about the roommates who didn’t like me for reasons neither of us could discern. She supported me in my refusal to date an extremely nice boy. How could I develop a relationship with someone else when she occupied so much of my attention? What was the point of loving someone new as I stood on the edge of losing the one person I loved more than anyone? I never voiced these questions to her. They languished in the silence between us.

When I visited her, we watched “The Golden Girls,” and she cooked for me. She baked me cookies from a Pillsbury roll. She made vegetable soup from a box mix, then sent me home with a Tupperware container full of dinners for the week. She took care of me, even as I began taking care of her.

In the midst of all this normalcy, it was easy to pretend things were normal, to pretend appearances could equate with experience.

In suburbia, where I was raised, normalcy is an aspiration. So is being okay. In the worst moments of her life, my mother clung hard to these myths of normalcy and okayness. And I affirmed them by staying silent.

I knew how to perform normalcy. I did not yet know how to mourn.

***

I visited Patsy Cline’s house in Winchester, Virginia recently. This was the first trip I took after losing a pregnancy that came after two years of waiting for my body to be able to sustain conception. I am not exaggerating when I say I wanted this baby as much as I have wanted to resurrect my mother. I am surprised by how much I want, how wanting compresses me, constricts me.

Mourning, too, is a kind of wanting.

I am mourning what I’d thought of as a baby growing inside of me, even though doctors used different words. Embryo. Fetus.

I am mourning the baby I wanted, and who did not come to be.

I am mourning the baby I want and might not ever have.

***

I find myself listening to Patsy’s songs each morning before I start my day. She sings me into my sadness, the way she did when my mother began to die.

So many people ask me, “How are you?” Or they send me texts like, “Are you feeling better?”

And I feel pressured to give the answers I suspect others want for their own relief. Fine. Yes.

But Patsy lets me be.

It is hard to tell the truth when we are grieving. And this makes me feel more alone, the pressure to perform normalcy.

The truth is I am sadder than I’ve been in a long time. The truth is grief has no finish line. The truth is grief is the shadow side of love.

Grief is what we inherit as a consequence of our love. It is proof of how powerfully we have loved.

This is why so many love songs are really about loss. This is why Patsy always sounds like she’s about to weep. She understands grief and love as separate sides of the same brilliant coin.

I listen to her at night now too, the same way I did years ago when I could not yet acknowledge my grief.

Now I let her sing me to sleep. I let her remind me of how terrible and beautiful our sorrow can be.

Patsy (2).jpg

How to Comfort the Bereaved

1. Do not say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Just don’t. Okay? No matter how many times someone has said this sentence to you, recognize its words as vacuous substitutes for real words that actually have something meaningful to say. What reason are children taken too soon from their mothers, or mothers from their children? What reason does your child get to live and another has to die? Luck? Chance? Probability? Suffering is random, indiscriminate. Not personal. When you personalize suffering, you are not offering comfort. You are saying, “You deserved this.”

2. Do not say, “It was meant to be.” See above.

3. Do not say, “This was God’s plan.” I don’t know what kind of god or God or G-d you believe in, but these words make your god/God/G-d sound like a calculating psychopath. Do you really mean that? A glimmer of my own god, which I call goodness, tells me such putrid malevolence can’t possibly exist. Or if it does, it’s called evil.

4. Do not ask, “What can I do?” You might be short on ideas. This is normal. Grief is overwhelming for everyone involved. But now is not the time to give a grieving person one more thing to do –– i.e. authoring your “To-Do” list. Figure out what you can do, and then do it. For example, you do not need to ask permission to leave a meal on a porch. Not a good cook? Leave a bag of potato chips. Anonymous potato chips can be a great comfort. Better yet, start a meal train and/or order takeout.

5. Do not ask “What happened?” You know the answer already, i.e. something horrific. So why are you really asking? Are you afraid this horrible something might happen to you? That’s not surprising. Another person’s loss can force us to confront our own deepest fears, ones we’ve buried so far down we can barely see them. Do not turn away. Call each of your fears by name until they rise up from the deepest part of you. Understand their power. Understand projection.

6. Do not ask, “How are you?” When a rabbi asked me this question at my mother’s shiva, my heart shriveled into a piece of coal, and I said something sarcastic that he well deserved: How do you think I’m doing?

Let me rephrase that now: How do you think a grieving person is doing?

Not so good. Right? So instead of asking this question, offer a hug, a hand, a potato chip. Offer yourself as a person others do not need to perform happiness around.

7. Do not ask, “How can I help?” See number 4.

8. Do not say “Time heals all wounds.” I wish this expression were true. But, in my own experience, time has not been a great healer because, in this world, we have something called “triggers.” Maybe you’ve heard this word. Maybe you’ve even joked “trigger warning!” before you’ve said something that freaked out a lot of people? Or maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. So let me explain. Triggers are like giant arrows that rip through time and take us right back to our worst traumas. Sometimes you know what will trigger you, and sometimes you don’t.

For example, the morning I began to miscarry my first pregnancy, I fell to the floor and wept the same way I did when I lost my mother fifteen years before. In that moment, two losses swam inside of me. Mother. Baby. Both gone, forever. And there was nothing I could do. In that moment I was me, the 36-year-old, with a cute house & beyond amazing husband & a horribly behaved dog. And I was the 21-year-old who could not even stand up, because the ground – or what she thought of as ground –– had disappeared.

At best, time can offer perspective. But it’s not a magic suture.

It is okay to be broken open by our losses, to be cracked into a thousand unknowable pieces by them. As Leonard Cohen once sung, “That’s how the light gets in.”

9. Do not say “It’s time to move on.This, by far, is the absolute worst thing to say. A loss can live inside a person forever, and a person can live inside a loss, around it, through it, and on into a life s/he never possibly imagined, a life fundamentally shaped by what has been lost.

Respect the awesome, holy, transfiguring power of loss. Honor it. Build an altar in your heart for it. There is no other way to proceed.

 

 

 

 

Turning Toward Our Pain

 

The night before Hurricane Katrina happened, I journaled in Carl’s bedroom with the door closed. He sat in the other room, likely watching “West Wing” or some other show we were into at the time.

Earlier in the day, I’d seen news of the storm broadcast on television. Images of people lined up outside the Superdome haunted me. People of color filled those lines. Although I had witnessed some racism in the South, I had never before seen such a powerful symbol of inequity. I know I sound naïve right now. But the 24-year-old I was knew little of the systems that supported and perpetuated racism. These images nauseated me. I wrote to relieve myself.  I wrote in a fever.

I turned off the lights. I lit a candle because I had a sense that this moment was a liminal one. I needed to ritualize it. This was one of the few times in my life that I’ve written without being aware of myself writing. My hand moved a pen across paper. Words came. I have no memory of conceptualizing them.

I wrote about a scale of destruction rarely seen in modern memory. I wrote about an unimaginable loss of life. I wrote about the evisceration of land. When I finished writing, sobs rolled through me. I opened the door and walked into the room where Carl sat watching TV, and I wept.

I am not psychic. But that night I opened a space inside myself where I could touch my own grief. I was writing about other people, and my worst fears. I was also writing about myself. I was writing about a place I had been.

After my mother died, I lost the only homes I ever knew. I lost my first home, my mother.

I lost the home where she raised me.

Touching my own grief made it possible for me to touch the grief that was coming, the grief I knew countless people would soon experience. I could no longer deny my sorrow or theirs. I had to see sorrow as an unavoidable, necessary condition of our humanity.

________

When Katrina happened, I worked as a religion reporter in northern Louisiana, in a city whose homes, churches, and shelters quickly filled with evacuees. It felt like every reporter at the newspaper worked overtime after Katrina.

I visited multiple shelters, including a makeshift one in a Wal-Mart parking lot. I visited a hospital, where two women who went into labor during the evacuation gave birth. One woman, white, told me her house hadn’t flooded and that her family was fortunate. They would be okay, she said, noting the safety nets of her own race and education privilege.

The other, a woman of color, lost everything, including all the gifts she had received for a baby shower the week before. She looked dazed. Like she had just landed on another planet.

Three weeks later, Hurricane Rita happened. I worked during the hurricane, which could be felt in northern Louisiana.

As the storm made landfall, I drove limb-strewn roads to visit a church full of bikers who’d evacuated. I wrote about them. I did my best to stay dry.

August and September 2005 were the most traumatic months of my career. But I can remember little about that time, just as I can remember little about the immediate weeks following my mother’s death.

Sometimes I want to remember. Sometimes I want to forget.

________

The Presbytère in New Orleans has an exhibit right now called “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond.” I visited last week.

If you are in New Orleans right now, or are going to be in the near future, you must visit this exhibit. It is among the most powerful museum experiences I have ever had, on par with the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, but on a much smaller scale.

As I walked the exhibit’s rooms, watched footage of the storm surge, felt wind from fans blowing on my face, and looked at a mud-caked Teddy bear retrieved from a flooded home, tears welled. There was so much I did not remember. By retrieving and documenting collective memory, the museum brought me back to the emotional state I had worked so hard to forget.

By witnessing the pain of others, I returned to my own.

________

The story culture tells about grief often ends with redemption. A life restored. A city rebuilt on a pile of ashes.

I like to pretend I rebuilt my life after my mother died. I even used that word –– rebuilt –– in my last post.

The truth is that this story erases pain by creating a false narrative that goes like this: something lost, something gained. This story implies a gain cancels out a loss.

The truth is that I have lived two different lives. I have the life with a mother. I have the life without her. The after life does not replace the before life. It is not a substitute. It is a life I am grateful for and one I would trade in heartbeat if she could sit here next to me.

The New Orleans of 2017 is not the New Orleans of 2005. Yes, real estate prices have soared in the city. Yes, there are more restaurants now. Yes, people are vacationing there. I’m living proof of that phenomenon.

But the poverty is extreme, and we were panhandled more on this trip than we’ve ever been in all our time in New Orleans.

I gave $10 to a woman on the street even though every inch of my body suspected she would use that money for drugs. When she looked into my eyes and told me she was starving, I could not say “no.” I did something I almost never do. I opened my purse, then my wallet, and I handled her my crumpled bills. This seemed like the most honest thing I could do, to choose not to turn away.

Sometimes I can still be naive as the 24-year-old who moved to the Louisiana delta with two suitcases and a used Toyota. I can also be wiser than her, more self aware.

I know now that when I turn toward another’s pain, I am turning toward myself. I am recovering something of what I’ve lost.

 

Angel of Grief

I have the good fortune to spend a few weeks in New Orleans this summer. This city feels like home to me, even though I have never lived there. I am drawn to New Orleans for the same reason I am drawn to “Hamlet.” The entire city is a living, breathing memento mori.

Also, there’s another reason. And here it is: My mother dreamed of visiting New Orleans. But she died before she had a chance to make the trip.

One of the reasons why my mother loved New Orleans is because she loved Anne Rice. She wanted to tour St. Louis Cemetery No. I, site of the Vampire Lestat’s empty tomb. She wanted to take a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi River, the way the vampires did in the movie that came out when I was in middle school. She wanted to have her Tarot cards read in Jackson Square.

I moved to Louisiana two years after my mother died.

But I lived in the northern part of the state, a region populated by Baptists and Pentecostals. The fastest way to get to New Orleans was to drive through Mississippi, and even that was a four-hour drive.

Still, I went whenever I could. When I met Carl, he went with me. He keeps going back with me. If I wanted to, he would go every year.

We don’t do that. But each time we visit New Orleans, it feels like a new experience, like I am seeing the city for the first time. Like I am seeing it through my mother’s eyes.  I take none of this for granted. I know how much even one trip would have meant to her.

I keep going back because I can, and because she cannot.

_____

A few weeks ago, I started working on an essay about the iconography of grief. It’s a hard essay to write, one that forces me to confront truths I would prefer to ignore. It’s an essay where I need to reveal aspects of my life around which I feel tremendous shame. It’s an essay where I disclose something that embarrasses me deeply.

I have a draft of the essay completed. I know the essay’s bones. I know its themes and title. But there is too much exposition. Not enough scene. The ending does not work. No ending I have drafted works.

This is because I’m holding back. A part of the essay’s story terrifies me. And I am not as brave as I want to be.

Sometimes I think writing should be easier than it is. But writing is the hardest emotional work I have ever done. It demands honesty. If I am being dishonest, I know it. And the reader does to.  Right now, I’m not ready to be fully honest. So the essay is suffering.

When I get stuck in an essay like this one, I am full of negativity and self-doubt. I do not see all the progress I have made. I focus on what I have not yet done. I worry I will never finish.

Fortunately, research helps me get unstuck. New Orleans has become the focus of my research.  I know I will finish the essay there.

_____

Another idea that this essay engages is how grief can haunt our bodies.

My body is haunted by my mother’s illness and death. This haunting manifests in certain odd behaviors I enact with my body, as well as an autoimmune disease that binds me to her in a strange and familiar way.

In New Orleans, I feel at home because grief is inscribed on this city, on its body.

_____

After Hurricane Katrina, Day-Glo orange and yellow “X-codes” appeared on a majority of the city’s structures. The X-codes documented a FEMA crew’s search and rescue efforts. The number of people found alive or dead was written at the bottom of each X.

We saw the Xs when we drove down for the first Jazz Fest after the storm. I gasped when I saw them. For me, each X held an apocalyptic power. The symbol evidenced a biblical level of human suffering and endurance. Pain that could not be erased. Or so I thought.

Now many people have painted over their Xs. Or the houses that once bore them have been replaced.

Some artists and academics have documented the Xs and the stories they tell. A few Xs may even remain more than 10 years after the storm, a distant echo of its roar.

I plan to find them during my visit.

_____

I like to enter New Orleans from the west. Interstate 10 takes you past Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery (known as simply as Metairie Cemetery), and you can see its marble tombs and mausoleums rising alongside the road.

I’ve toured other cemeteries in New Orleans, but have never visited Metairie Cemetery. As part of my research, I will visit the cemetery this summer. I’m drawn to the Angel of Grief, also known as the Weeping Angel, located in Chapman Hyams’ monument.

Hyams was a prominent New Orleans businessman, and the statue he commissioned is a copy of the 1894 sculpture by William Wetmore Story, the same sculpture that marks Story’s grave in Rome. Copies of the statue exist throughout the world, but Hyams’ statue is the only one in New Orleans.

Although it is not an official tourist site, Metairie’s Angel of Grief attracts visitors each year, some of whom have documented their journeys online.

For me, the statue is a pilgrimage site, and I suspect other visitors may agree.

I am compelled by the angel’s body stooped in grief. One arm bends beneath her forehead, while the other one hangs down. I read desperation in her posture. Animal vulnerability. I read myself into her pose.

When I learned my mother had died, I fell to the ground.

Sometimes, I think I’m still there.

But that is a half-truth. After my mother died, I rebuilt my life in Louisiana. Each time I visit, I am farther removed from my mother. I am farther removed from the person I was when I lost her.

This does not mean I am okay with the loss, just as the city of New Orleans is not okay that Hurricane Katrina happened.

It means I’ve learned to live around the loss, or in spite of it. But there’s a part of me that will never be the same.

In New Orleans, I do not have to hide.

Galatoires 2012.jpg

Me at my favorite NOLA restaurant Galatoire’s in 2012. Don’t let the Bourbon Street address fool you, Galatoire’s is a classy joint.

How to Be There for a Person in Crisis

I received some bad news the other day. When I told other people, they immediately focused on the positives, which irritated me. The positives, while not untrue, were also a kind of erasure.

God bless my mother-in-law, who after a near lifetime as a nurse, knows something about true empathy. Her response to the bad news? Two simple, significant words. Oh. No.

Because the bad news doesn’t involve me directly, I’m not going to share it here. What I’m more interested in is writing about how we, as human beings, show up for each other in the face of bad news. What do we do? What do we say? What’s so wrong with looking on the bright side?

Despite being an expert in living with loss, I am probably insensitive and lacking in empathy more often than I know. But having lived for awhile in the shadow of progressively bad news, I do know more about what I’m looking for in terms of empathy.

So let me share a few tips with you in the spirit of making our world a kinder, less irritating place for people experiencing a crisis.

Thanks for hearing me out 🙂

1. If a person shares a medical test result or procedure with you, do not say “Well that’s better than X.” Do not talk about a procedure that someone you know is having that might be worse in your mind. Remember, suffering is suffering is suffering. This is not a competition. There are no winners. Just a lot of sufferers.

2. Don’t disappear. That means responding to texts and responding to phone calls. Bad news is coming for all of us. What you do and say to another person experiencing a crisis prepares you for the one you are going to face. Silence is not golden. It’s infuriating.

3. I know what you’ve been told about clouds and silver linings, but have you ever stopped to think about the absurdity of this expression. Sadly, there is no silver in the sky. I wish I were wrong. How cool would it be if rain was silver? But this is real life with real pollution and real boring acid rain. Just let it be.

4. I know it’s tempting to say things like, “Let me know if you need anything.” I say shit like this all the time. But after receiving the bad news that will not be named, I was so out of it that I drove the wrong way down a one-way alley –– an alley I drive every day. People in crisis don’t know what they need. They are just trying to get through the day in one piece, without a car accident or other catastrophe. Take a page from my mother-in-law. Say “oh, no.”

5. Maybe you’re in the inner circle of someone who’s going through a rough time, and you want to be involved. This is good. This is noble. You should probably be deployed to train the people who can’t be bothered to respond to texts. But please be cool with not getting updates in real-time. People who are suffering have a bigger job to do than keeping you informed. Don’t pester them.

6. It’s best not to multitask when you’re on the phone with someone in a crisis. That person can hear you checking your e-mail or yelling at your kids. Yes, you are doing your best managing the million things you need to do in a given day. But the person on the other side can sense your distraction. And it feels rude.

7. Prayers. I know you have them. I know you want to share them. Maybe you even believe the only kind of prayer worth saying employs the word “Jesus.” Guess what? I’m a Jew. And Jesus-name prayers are irrelevant to me. So please save me and/or other non-Christians in crisis from having to school you on the difference between Christianity and all other religions. We have enough to do. Send thoughts. Send good vibes. Send non-deistic cards.

8. Anger. I bet you sensed some in that last item I just wrote. It’s there. It’s unavoidable. It’s human. Be a person who makes space for others to express their anger. Express your own. Just go ahead and scream right now. Doesn’t it feel good?

9. Shame. This is the shadow side of crisis. When our lives don’t go in the direction we want, shame flows alongside us like a lazy river, but less fun. When a person shares something with you that is difficult, that person risks shame. That person likely feels shame. Don’t add to the shame-pool by telling this person what to do, think, or believe. Don’t speculate on the causes of this crisis, or what alternative means might undo it. Have the courage to face vulnerability directly. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

10. You’re probably really curious right now about this bad news that cannot be named. Stay curious. Don’t pry. People in crisis have a right to process and explore their feelings without managing yours. This isn’t a slight. This isn’t about you. Be okay with that.