What Losing My Two Children Taught Me About Grief
Never say “There are no words” to the grieving.
This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.
I was in acute grief, the depths of which I couldn’t have previously imagined. In the summer of 2019, we had been T-boned by a drunk and high driver going 90 miles an hour in a 50-mile-an-hour zone. My wife, Gail, and I had survived the crash, but our two teenage children in the back seat, Ruby and Hart, had not.
Gail and I received an incredible outpouring of love and support from friends and family who were willing to do just about anything to help us. They organized a meal train and checked in on us often. But they all struggled, in one way or another, with how to talk to us.
How do you talk to parents whose two teenage children have just been killed? I could see the fear and panic in people’s eyes when they came through our front gate. They looked stricken. They didn’t even know how to greet us anymore. A simple “How are you?” or “Great to see you” now seemed terribly inappropriate. They carefully avoided the topics of grief, or loss, or death. They didn’t mention their own kids for fear of upsetting us. And they didn’t dare utter Ruby and Hart’s names aloud.
Our friends were worried that if they said the wrong thing, they might cause us even more pain. And I think they were also scared by the possibility that we might break down and weep uncontrollably right in front of them. And so almost everyone we knew landed on the same unfortunate solution: “There are no words.”
We encountered this unhelpful phrase over and over again in the early days of our grief. It was shocking how often people would say it, or email it, or write it on their condolence cards. Apparently, somewhere along the line, our culture teaches us that this is a benign, acceptable response to grief. I understand the idea behind it. It is saying that your loss is so overwhelming and tragic that no words are adequate. And it’s an excuse, for those who are frightened of saying the wrong words, to say nothing at all.
But There are no words also acts as a perfect conversation killer. This empty phrase immediately ends any chance of a dialogue about loss and mourning. It encapsulates all that is wrong with how our society handles grief.
Because the truth was that Gail and I desperately wanted someone to talk to. We needed our friends’ conversation more than their food or well-wishes. We had discovered how important it was to share our feelings in order to process the pain coursing through us. We needed some way of allaying our friends’ fears so that we could have the meaningful conversations we yearned for. So we quickly developed what I came to call our “grief spiel.”
The spiel included three important points. First, our friends needn’t walk on eggshells around us. Nothing they could say would trigger us. We were dealing with our pain and loss all day long, so mentioning the car crash, or death, or grief, or any other word or topic was not going to send us over the edge.
Second, we needed to talk about Ruby and Hart, and to hear people say their names aloud. It was actually upsetting and confusing when people didn’t talk about Ruby and Hart. It felt bizarre and cruel when people would purposely avoid their names. In those first few months, how could we talk about anything else but Ruby and Hart?
Third, we told them that we needed to talk about our pain and grief. We could talk about other subjects for a little while, but after, say, five or 10 minutes, we needed the conversation to circle back to our loss. I described it as the emotional equivalent of being impaled on a spear. It would be bizarre to have a conversation with someone in which they didn’t ask about the blade jutting out of my back or the blood pouring down my chest.
It worked. Our friends went from being terrified and tiptoeing around us to having actual conversations with us. They began sharing stories and memories of Ruby and Hart. Telling these stories felt as though we were conjuring Ruby and Hart among us for a brief moment and allowing them to continue to give us joy. These conversations also allowed us to process our loss and come to grips with our new reality. The spiel made our friends into excellent listeners. We wanted people to ask us about our grief and how we were managing this catastrophic loss. It was, after all, the only thing we were thinking about.
I found my grief spiel naturally evolving as I encountered different reactions to my loss. For example, in an attempt to connect and relate to me, some of my friends would share their own experiences of loss. But because none of them had lost all their children in a car crash, the comparisons felt inappropriate. It was almost as if, by telling me their mother had died last year, they were equating my unnatural loss of my children with the death of their elderly parent. I altered my spiel to include a sentence about not wanting to hear about different losses: “I don’t give a shit about your favorite cat who died, or your grandma who died, or your uncle who had a heart attack at 60.” I have a dark, blunt sense of humor, so this part of the spiel invariably got some much-needed laughs. But it was also effective. People stopped telling me about what it was like when their cousin died 10 years ago. They stopped trying to relate to my pain, and instead just listened to me and bore witness. (And as time went on, I grew stronger and developed more bandwidth for other people’s problems. I dropped this part of my spiel when I felt ready. Now I am able to speak compassionately with friends about all their losses and struggles.)
About two weeks after the funeral, I altered my grief spiel again when I realized friends were discreetly sneaking off to the bathroom to cry, hoping that Gail and I wouldn’t notice. The loss of Ruby and Hart was such a blow to our whole community that merely thinking about my family’s pain would send friends to tears. They hid those tears because they knew that if they started crying in front of us, we would probably join in. They didn’t want to add to our weeping. But they didn’t understand that our relationship to crying had changed radically after the crash.
Even though it hurt to cry, we welcomed it. It felt necessary. Crying jags had become a natural part of our day. In fact, if Gail and I went too long without crying, we found ourselves spiraling down into a painful place of pent-up grief. Rather than being upset by seeing friends and family cry, it gave us solace. It made our own tears feel more normal, like we were part of a larger collective weeping for Ruby and Hart. It made us feel less alone in our grief. We wanted the whole world to weep over the deaths of our children. So I altered my spiel to include the following: “I get a lot of solace crying with friends. I find it’s a nice way to honor our love for Ruby and Hart. So don’t be worried that you might cause me pain if you suddenly find yourself crying. It’s okay. It actually feels good to cry.”
One way we as a family processed anything in life was through dark humor. Ruby and Hart’s deaths didn’t change that. If anything, our senses of humor got even darker. I know some people have a hard time laughing after a profound loss. It can feel like a terrible betrayal. But Gail and I were making macabre jokes days after the crash. We needed to laugh in order to stay connected to our identities, and to deal with the incomprehensible reality we now found ourselves in. Many of our friends were scared that any laughter on their part might be offensive or insulting. It was important that we altered our grief spiel again to include the idea that laughter is okay too. We needed to give people permission to follow our lead if we occasionally reacted with humor amid the horror of Ruby and Hart’s deaths.
When Gail and I returned to work, we both composed new grief spiels for our colleagues. Gail went back to work in August on the television show Black-ish. She was very nervous that her colleagues would think she was broken and no longer “herself.” She was scared people would look away when they saw her, and whisper to one another behind her back about the crash. She felt strongly that she needed to give everyone her grief spiel at the very first meeting of the new season. She wanted to tell them all herself what had happened to Ruby and Hart so that there would be no tiptoeing around the subject. She came prepared. She wrote out exactly what she wanted to say.
The show’s entire cast and crew gathered to say hello and share stories about what they had accomplished over the summer break. There was lots of applause for how well the show had done the previous season, and new writers were introduced; and then the head writer announced that Gail would like to say a few words. It got very quiet. She told them how Ruby and Hart were killed. She told them that she liked hearing Ruby and Hart’s names and that, considering how most of them had met the kids over the years, she would appreciate any Ruby and Hart stories they might want to tell her. She told her colleagues that they didn’t need to be scared of her or her grief. She put a couple of jokes into her speech, just to reassure people that she was still herself, still capable of being funny.
In reality, she didn’t feel like herself. She had real concerns that she might never again be able to make jokes about families. But it was a leap of faith that if she told people to treat her like herself, one day she might actually feel like herself, or at least a version of herself that still found humor and joy in comedy. As she spoke, people nodded encouragement to her, and afterward they all applauded. She felt supported and loved.
For a long time after the crash, part of us wanted to die, rather than face the agony of our grief. Our instincts tell us to run from pain. But in the case of grief, our instincts are wrong. The reason it hurts so badly is because we love them so much. If we look at it that way, the pain can be understood not as a bad thing to avoid, but as a beautiful tribute, a sign that our hearts are still working. There are no words doesn’t understand this. It treats grieving as a taboo subject that is too sensitive to discuss openly. But that atmosphere of shame and secrecy just further isolates those in mourning. Our ever-evolving grief spiel helped normalize our suffering for our friends. And it allowed Gail and me to remain in the world of the living, even as we grieved.
This essay was adapted from the forthcoming book, Finding the Words: Working Through Profound Loss With Hope and Purpose.
When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.