Someone asked me the other night if I would appreciate it if other people who knew about Eliza, but with whom I'm not super close--people I don't know very well, or someone with whom I had a professional relationship, like my doctor, or dentist, or financial advisor--would mention Eliza or acknowledge her birthday when it gets closer. She wanted to know if I would want them to say something to me, or if that acknowledgement would upset me.
The answer was yes to both.
Yes, of course I want people to acknowledge my daughter.
Yes, talking about her upsets me, in the sense that it makes me cry. But it doesn't make me angry or sad (-er than I already am). It just allows me to acknowledge those feelings. And that's a gift.
We know it's bad to make people cry. We don't want people to be upset. We are culturally and biologically conditioned to feel bad when we hurt someone, physically or emotionally. We see that hurt when it shows up in the form of tears, so, naturally, we want to do everything we can to avoid making people cry.
A few years ago, I was at a wedding for one of David's cousins. David's dad was there with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, and I knew that her dad was really sick. I hadn't gotten the chance to talk to her all day, so as we were walking through the buffet line at the reception, filling our plates with caesar salad and potatoes au gratin, I asked Michelle how her dad was doing. She set her plate down on the edge of the buffet and burst into tears.
Her dad was dying. And I had just made her cry.
I felt terrible.
She had been fine all evening. She seemed to be having a good time. And then there I went and opened my big mouth, bringing up a "sore subject," upsetting her in the middle of a nice reception, when she should be enjoying herself. I felt so bad. I told David later that I didn't know what I was thinking, but I never should have said anything. I hated to see her so upset. And it was all my fault.
Yeah, I see now how stupid that was. Her tears had nothing to do with me. Maybe my question brought them to the surface, but they'd been there all day long, through the ceremony, through the picture-taking, through the introduction of the wedding party. They'd been there for weeks--ever since her dad got the cancer diagnosis.
My question did not remind her of something she had forgotten. Yes, she might have held the tears in all night long if nobody had mentioned her dad, but that question came from a place of sympathy and concern and it was the right thing to ask, even though I didn't realize it at the time.
The truth is, I was embarrassed by her tears, and I felt like I'd done something wrong. But why shouldn't she cry? Her dad was dying! He was young and the only parent she had left and she was terribly sad. Of course she would cry about it. Maybe the timing was awkward (I seem to have a knack for tearful encounters at the salad bar), but all my question did was open the way for her to release a sadness and emotion that had been building up all day long.
Here's what my therapist says: Crying is not a negative reaction. It releases sadness; it does not create it.
Too often, our friends, co-workers, acquaintances, are often so worried about not wanting to upset us, not wanting to see us cry, that they avoid mentioning any topics that might be upsetting (just like I did with Stephanie and her mom).
But the people who are truly concerned for us, they don't try to keep our tears away. They sit there in the midst of them with us. As uncomfortable and awkward as it might feel.
Being truly kind to people who are grieving isn't about not making them cry. It's about letting them cry.
I really wanted to communicate that to the person who asked me if it would be appropriate for an acquaintance, casual or professional, to mention Eliza.
So this was my answer:
I would appreciate any acknowledgement of my baby. It might make me cry, but that doesn't mean that it was inappropriate. It means that you are acknowledging the greatest tragedy of my life and I am responding to it the only way I can--with a grief that is as deep as my love for her. I am grateful that you gave me the chance to do so.
(Perhaps I should get this printed on business cards, so I can hand them out to people while I dig around in my purse for a tissue and choke back sobs.)
I can't show off a parade of photos, I can't tell you how much she's grown, I can't tell you how many teeth she has, or how close she is to walking.
But I can show you that I love her so much, the mere thought of having to exist without her here brings me to tears every time.
I'm not going to lie--sometimes I feel totally embarrassed after I've cried in front of someone. I've cried in front of the chair of the English department at my new job. Twice. I've cried in front of my advisor from graduate school. On the phone with insurance companies. In the office of every doctor I've seen since I lost Eliza, and sometimes in the waiting room. I cried in line for security at the airport when we were leaving for Canada because I was so sad we weren't taking our baby with us. There are moments when I am afraid I will be perceived as crazy or weak or out of control because I can't keep from crying, and that frustrates me.
Most of the time, I can keep my tears in check. These days, I don't typically walk around blubbering in public (airport incident notwithstanding). I still want and need to be somewhat private in my grief. But I've also gotten more comfortable with my tears, and with letting people see them. Crying doesn't set me back, it doesn't tear me apart, it doesn't make me depressed. Tears just spill over sometimes, because that's how freaking hard this is. And if someone else witnesses that? Fine. After all, most of the time, I do a pretty damn good job of making it through the day.
What I want other people to understand, when they mention Eliza and my eyes fill with tears, is that crying does not mean, "I can't believe you mentioned her name and I hate you for making me sad."
Crying means, "I love her and miss her so much, and I'm really touched that you are thoughtful enough to say her name and ask how I'm doing."
So please, go ahead and make me cry. The real kindness isn't avoiding the subject. It's abiding with me and my tears.