Speaking of the Unspeakable

by Melissa Dalton-Bradford
Familius Publishing

Melissa Dalton-Bradford
Melissa Dalton-Bradford

Early October. Two months and two weeks after burying Parker. The shock of major loss has crash-landed our family on an island of pain. We’ve also literally landed in a foreign country: just days after the funeral, we’ve moved with our three surviving children, catatonic with grief, to Germany. We’re doubly shipwrecked.

And still we’ve had no word from Grandma and Grandpa.

No phone calls. No emails. No messages in a bottle. Nothing.

I need my parents now more than ever. But do I call them?

No.

Why not?

Because I’m overwhelmed with sadness. I’m soaked through with our three children’s sadness and with my husband’s sadness, which sad saturation is compounded by the demands of an international move managed under extreme physical and psychological impairment. The vacuum of no familiar anything or anyone is gaining suction with each day that passes.

And because I’m afraid.

I’m afraid that family and friends are done now. Done with grief. They’ve moved on to brighter things, lighter things. And the trailing question strangles me: Is that what I’m expected to do, too? Be done? Am I supposed to “get over it”? Get to work? Get myself together, get a grip? Get on with life, get a life? I’ve never done this before, this incomprehensible and inescapable pain, so I don’t know the rules. I do know, however, that I’m doing really well just getting up.

I’m afraid of other things, too. I’m afraid of what might happen as soon as I open my mouth, afraid of the inadequacies of language to transmit the borderlessness of anguish that I barely understand myself. I’m afraid that if I call on anyone, including my own parents, such a call will be misperceived as a plea for pity. I’m afraid that if compassion has to be prompted out of others, it’s not the compassion I want.

And I’m afraid that if no one talks to me about my son he’ll slip from my grasp. He will disappear into oblivion. I recoil at a quote I find from Russian author Alexander Pushkin: “Oblivion is the natural lot of anyone not present. It’s horrible, but true.”

So this, fear instructs me, is how you’ll lose your child a second time.

Confused and overwhelmed with pain and fear, I find myself existentially cut off from the horizontal world and yearning for the vertical. In prayer, I reach upward, and in all other ways I dig downward. Deeper and deeper within myself, I’m trying to get to bedrock, digging into this island of grief I’ve been shipwrecked on. I climb down into this crater I’ve holed out with my nails in the middle of the night—all those soot black hours I spend on my knees, scraping at the hallway floor, pounding on the kitchen floor, rocking on the bathroom floor. And I crouch there in that hole. I go very, very quiet. And maybe a bit crazy.

And I wait. I crouch. I wait. I watch. I wait.

And wait.

It’s the last week of October and gunmetal gray presses down on the Isar river outside our apartment window. The leaf-shedding trees I’ve been watching daily, hourly, are emaciated, stripped to bark nakedness. It’s mid-afternoon and I’m in my bathrobe. The phone rings. It’s my parents, together on speaker phone. Their voices are slightly unnatural, and remind me of pastel taffy. Sugary softness wrapped in wax with tight twists at both ends.

“Our whole California trip was just wonderful, Melissa. Very enjoyable and relaxing.”

Pause.

“. . . Mm-hmm.”

Pause.

“Yes. Mom and I thought the hotels were comfortable, and the weather, well, what did you think, Donna?”

“Very comfortable. Unseasonably warm . . . even balmy . . .”

Pause.

“. . . Mm-hmm.”

Pause.

“And then there was the hotel swimming pool. Kidney shaped. Too cold, but deep aqua tiles. Pretty to look at.”

Pause.

“. . . Mm-hmm.”

When we hang up, I drop the phone on the bed. I’m immobile with exhaustion. I can’t lift my head. From one half-opened eye I see on the bedspread that I’ve left a dark blue tear-print as big as a tile-lined kidney-shaped swimming pool.

Alone in this claustrophobic, dim bedroom I feel all my cells collapsing and my bones turning to syrup and my torso cramping and my neck muscles tensing. Then I hear an animal in me growling through gritted teeth and a clenched jaw, and the moan builds—swells, opens to a long, low yowl.

And I fall majorly apart. Who knows how long it lasts.

At some point I pull myself together, gather my wits, blow my nose, pray out loud, cry a few words to Parker, and call back my parents.

My voice is dulled and groggy as I stammer like I’m coming out from under anesthesia.

“Mom?”

“Oh, it’s you again, honey. Good, good! Did we forget something?”

“I . . . I need . . .” I have been lying on my side, but now I sit up to assume my erect, well-planted persona. This way I can breathe and project better. “I am going to say something now . . .”

“Melissa? Did we do something? You sound . . . Wha—did we say the wrong thing? . . . Sweetheart?”

(“David, come back. Hurry. She’s on the phone.”)

“Mom? . . . I need . . . what I want is . . .” I close my eyes. “Can we just talk . . .
talk about . . . about what matters?”

By now my dad, who’s turned off the speakerphone, has the receiver close to his lips. His voice vibrates in its lowest register. I know this voice: panic-
control mode.

“Melissa? Now tell us please, honey. What do you need to talk to us about?”

The Bradford Family
The Bradford Family

I try to speak, but it’s too physically demanding to push words ahead of the crying that is surging, it seems, upwards from the floor of my gut, so I make some incomprehensibly muffled sounds. My parents wait on their end of the line as I begin filling up that kidney-shaped pool with the tears of a child.

Infantilized. I’m six years old again, needing my mommy and daddy, I think while I keep fighting for breath between gasps and whimpers, scrambling to find my mind, find myself. I don’t know how to control any of this. How can this be happening? This forty-something someone, the one who not long ago was resourceful and commanding enough to referee several major international moves, plucky and outspoken enough to lecture before hundreds, a turbo-charged joie de vivre Type A type . . . That someone is replaced by a mucus-drooling amoeba, a formless heap of swollen-eyed sweaty-stale bathrobed-ness that can’t form a single pronounceable shape in her rubber-slobbery mouth.

“Melissa?” My dad’s now whispering.

“Oh, Melissa, dear, what did Dad and I do? Was it the pool honey? Oh, darling . . .” My mother’s voice is cracking. “That’s it, David. I knew it. Oh, I . . . Should we, should we not have said the word pool? . . . David, you see? I just knew we’d say something wrong—”

“No! NO, Mom.” I drill a fist into the mattress. “No! I . . . I just—” I catch myself, pulling down my pitch, which suddenly reminds me of a hurt and angry child. I purse my lips and lift my head, sucking in swift courage. “I need to talk . . . but . . . I can not talk about just anything. I have to talk about Parker. About him. I need us to talk about Par—”

The dam ruptures. The floodgates smash. Deluge. Tides of tears. From both sides of the Atlantic.

Remorse.

Apologies.

Love.

My parents hurriedly explain that they’ve intentionally not called for so long to give us “room.” They didn’t want to “open any wounds,” they say. They didn’t want to “remind us of our loss.”

“The longer we didn’t make contact,” my mom’s voice is twisted with pain, “the more awkward we felt about calling.”

“You hadn’t been calling us,” my dad interjects softly, “so we reasoned that you must have been doing well . . . enough.”

Which they knew was probably unlikely, they say, but they had at least hoped. . . . And in the worst-case scenario, if in fact we weren’t doing well, we probably wanted to be left alone.

“Were we wrong?” my dad asks.

“Besides all of that,” my mom cuts in, “we’ve been traveling, you know, and lecturing,” which I know is their way of finding a practical distraction from heavy things. My dad, during those days around the funeral, had been discreetly clenching his chest. I didn’t know how much of the weight of grief his aging heart could bear. He probably needed reprieve. “Death, like the sun,” wrote La Rochefoucauld, “is not to be looked at steadily.”

They explain to me how hard it was to decide to finally call, that before they dared pick up the phone, they’d agreed on a game plan. No mention of anything even remotely associated with Parker. And by all means keep the tone upbeat and frothy—light, feathery talk.

I find no words. I wrap a moist, shredding tissue in and around my fingers, which are stone cold.

“Melissa, sweet daughter,” my mom’s voice is loosening as if massaged with oil. “We love you, honey, and we’re so utterly brokenhearted about Parker we can hardly . . .” There is silence. I hear the unfamiliar sound of my mom trying to talk through tears.

“What your mother’s trying to say,” my dad steps in, “is that we can hardly breathe.”

Now I hear the far more unfamiliar sound of my dad struggling through tears.

“We are sorry.” Mom has the voice of a young girl.

“And,” Dad clears his throat, “we’re deeply, deeply sad.” He speaks so softly that if I close my eyes, I could swear he and my mom are sitting on the edge of my bed, as they sometimes did when I was young. “We are mournful,” he adds like he’s dragging those last two syllables, freighted and ancient as a rusted tanker hull, along a gravel riverbed.

“This is all so new to us,” my mother speaks softly, “and we don’t know how to do this well.”

“But we can change this, can’t we?” There is such smallness in Dad’s voice. “Can we change this and stay in this horrible thing together?” he adds, deepening his tone. “Please?”

Every blessed day from that moment on and for months on end, at 3:00 a.m. Mountain Standard Time, my parents, unable to sleep for their own suffocating sorrow at losing their eldest grandchild, call Munich.
It’s impossible to “remind” someone of the One Thing that is splitting the seams of their heart and mind day and night. Buttoning a collar, folding gym socks, frying an egg, putting a key in the ignition, sitting and staring and feeling one’s own heart beat—all of it is hot-throbbing with thoughts of loss and of the loved one. If co-mourners think it’s their job to avoid
acknowledging the One Thing—if they go away or go silent, or if they do show up yet fill their conversations with distracting chatter and quick-fix platitudes—they misunderstand grief and their role in mourning and comforting. They can add injury to agony.

The bereaved can become desperate and/or angry and/or resentful if friends avoid them in their time of dire need. If fear, discomfort, self-consciousness or self-absorption drive observers of grief to silence or to a literal detour away from their grieving friends (and down another aisle in the grocery store, for example), the bereaved will probably interpret this as a tacit disregard of their loss. Friends needn’t ambush them with attention or crush them with affection. But if they disassociate themselves, waiting at a distance for the bereaved to “get over it,” they not only lose the great blessing—for both sides—of mourning together, but they risk disappearing from that relationship altogether.

If friends disengage—especially in those early months of grief—what happens when they return to their broken friends much too late offering explanations like the following? (These are actual quotes with good people’s faces behind them):

“I couldn’t speak to you. Your story kind of intimidated me.”

“I didn’t want to get you worked up about the past.”

“Your pain frightened me. You looked too sad to approach.”

“I felt totally helpless. I kept trying to find something original to say. But I guess I never found that thing.”

“You were so sad for so long, and I was worried. I thought the Gospel was supposed to fix these things.”

“We didn’t know how to help you find closure.”

“I’ve been an awful friend. Honestly, I’ve been so distracted with other things in my life.”

“We thought we’d wait a few weeks until you looked like you were over the worst part, until you were healed. Then it seems the weeks passed so quickly and, well . . .”

“A parent’s worst nightmare. I hope you’ll forgive me, but I just didn’t dare get close to it, to you.”

The process of mourning is by nature constant, constantly changing and communal; it is not something distanced friends can later “catch up” on. Fortunately, the impasse I experienced with my parents lasted only a few weeks. We were able to repair any damage to our otherwise loving lifelong relationship. There were other relationships, however, that did not recover from the silence so promptly or so smoothly.

In studying bereavement, I have been stunned to learn that on top of losing a loved one to death, the bereaved often lose friendships and family due to their grief. As one bereaved woman wrote to me:

“The deadliest silence for me has been the silence in my own family—my many brothers and their wives. What keeps them silent and unable (or unwilling?) to reach into my mourning and comfort me? What keeps any of us silent? As I contemplate past (and passed up) opportunities to comfort the mourning, I wonder if it is simply lack of awareness. Busy-ness. Selfishness.”

Or as another person recounted:

“My mother died when I was in high school, and I still clearly recall the pain of being shut out from my friends with a wall of silence. I thought then that young people could not be expected to understand such grief, but even older people struggle to understand one another’s grief.”

Grief has the power to test every person, every age, and every relationship; it will stretch the understanding, patience, long-suffering, and forgiveness of mourners and co-mourners alike.

Very often, co-mourners feel helpless and uncertain about what to do, and they may expect the bereaved to coach them on how to help. But you can no more expect the grief-stricken to coach you on how to mourn with them than you can expect the freshly amputated to offer tips on how to administer first aid. After Parker died, we were battling the enormous physiological and psychological demands of acute grief; with our limbs torn off, the last thing we had energy for was persuading our closest confidantes that we were bleeding to death, and needed someone to pinch the artery. Either they saw it—and felt it with us—or they did not.

And that is precisely it. The grief-stricken need others to feel it with them.

But what if others do not feel it with you, what then? What do you do when your parents haven’t called? When certain family, friends, neighbors, and church members have backed away, or conversely, bombarded you with empty chattery platitudes—if they in other words have been incapable of engaging in your life drenched with mourning? When a friend disappears, it seems, from off the face of the earth? Or another has judged or rushed or minimized your grief? When instead of “I am here, I will not leave you, I’m with you in this,” you hear the post-air raid drone of silence?

And you suddenly smell the unfamiliar stench of a saucepan of resentment simmering on your red-hot frontal lobe? When your heart has begun feeling a bit dried out, then brittle, then crusty from anger, curling up around the edges under a low grade fuming, toasting under the grill of indignation, despair, isolation, blistering beneath the scorch of compounded pain?

What then?

The Old Testament tells of Job, who loses everything, including the support of his friends and family: “He hath put my brethren far from me, and mine acquaintances are verily estranged from me. My kinsfolk have failed, and my familiar friends have forgotten me.” Job is stripped of glory, ground into the dust, mocked, misjudged, condemned, and abandoned. Yet God reveals that Job will only be an acceptable High Priest when he “prays for his friends”—the very people who have added to his misery. Job, who has nothing left to give, offers up a precious intangible. He offers forgiveness.

I’m no modern-day Job. No perfect saint. No loser of absolutely everything and everyone. No victim of a community-wide boycott. My family and I were lavished with love from all sides, many times from surprising sides. And I was also able to look into the kind and moist eyes of my parents and see that their silence had been due not to malice, but to innocent ignorance. When, in December, we walked into my parents’ home for Christmas and glimpsed each other face-to-face for the first time since the funeral, our instinct was to fall into each other’s arms and then to our knees. There, hands clasped and tears streaming with relief, pain and bittersweet joy, we prayed aloud with and for each other.

It is one thing to pray with and for those who are apologetic and eager to learn to comfort the grief-stricken. It is something else to pray for those who either never come at all, or who come, it seems, not to feel our sorrow or even to encourage us as we flail, but to diminish or disallow our grief or, as bad, to inspect us. Who rather than encircling us, circle us, as did Job’s friends, critiquing, minimizing, rushing, and judging the nature of our grief. Who told Job that he had better not feel sorry for himself. (My answer to them? You are far less likely to feel sorry for yourself if you are not left to feel sorrow by yourself.)

Praying as Job did—for a heart that forgives malicious, misguided, or just plain “miserable comforters,” as Job calls his friends—is not just a good way to keep our cool. Praying is the only way to turn down the killing sizzle of indignation and make way for the enlivening warmth of the Spirit. Only when we are free from anger and resentment can we receive the love that is waiting to rescue us from that isle of grief where, without love, we would remain stranded, parched, starving to death, captive in our grief.

“And the Lord turned the captivity of Job when he prayed for his friends.”

What might that prayer have been, the one Job spoke on behalf of his friends? I suspect it would have prefigured another prayer uttered by the only true and great High Priest:

“Father, forgive us all for we know not what we do.”

her book.jpgAbout the Author: Melissa Dalton-Bradford is an author, independent scholar, popular public speaker, wife, and bereaved mother, who has published essays, poetry, and two books, Global Mom: A Memoir, and On loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourning with Them.  She holds a BA in German and an MA in Comparative Literature, speaks, reads and writes fluent German, French, and Norwegian, is conversant in Mandarin, is studying Italian, and has taught language, humanities and writing on the university level. She and her husband Randall have built their family in Vienna, Hong Kong, Oslo, Paris, Munich, Singapore, Geneva, and are presently moving to Frankfurt.  It was in the middle of a major move––from Paris, France to Munich, Germany––that the Bradfords lost their firstborn son Parker to a tragic drowning accident. He was attempting to save the life of a fellow student caught in a lethal hidden whirlpool. With that tragedy, Melissa was catapulted to the most foreign world she’s ever inhabited, the entirely alien—but transformative––land of loss.

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