Bereaved Parents, grieving dads, traumatic brain injury, young child death

Speak His Name, Please

Bart Sumner
Bart Sumner

Bart Sumner is an actor, screenwriter, improvisational comedy teacher and performer, and national presenter on grief. His son, David, died in 2009 from a severe brain injury suffered while playing football. He is the author of the book HEALING IMPROV: A JOURNEY THROUGH GRIEF TO LAUGHTER, writes the blog “My Stories From The Grief Journey” at the Healing Improv website, and has contributed articles to many other grief support sites online. He is the founder and CEO of the nonprofit HEALING IMPROV, which provides no-cost Comedy Improv Grief Workshops to people struggling with finding the road forward after loss. You may contact Bart through his email or Twitter @Healing_Improv. Visit his Facebook page.

The following is a chapter from his book- HEALING IMPROV: A JOURNEY THROUGH GRIEF TO LAUGHTER. Available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.

I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” ~Bansky

When a person you love dearly dies, one of the hardest things to come to terms with is the reality you will never see them again, you will never hear their laughter, you will never hug them, or feel their touch, or smell them or simply enjoy the presence of them being there beside you watching the idiot box silently from the couch. All interaction is gone. The only place they live on is in your memory. The good things cement themselves in your reminiscences forever and much of the bad or annoying things fade away. The fact that there are no new memories to be made is oft times crippling. Because of this, tears and weeping happen at the drop of a hat. And let’s face it, most people are uncomfortable when someone they are talking to suddenly becomes misty eyed, and their voice begins to tremble. Perhaps this is why most people are afraid to mention the person that died in conversation. The trepidation of bringing the griever pain and heartache keeps people from discussing them at all.

I suppose this is very natural. When we see someone who is devastated by something, the last thing we want to do is pile on more pain. Often you hear the phrase, “I didn’t want to mention (Insert dead person) because it might make (Insert griever) sad.” Let me clue you in; WE ARE ALREADY SAD!

We have not forgotten. I have not gone forward in my life and magically forgotten my son died four years ago. There is no moment in my life since then that the memory of watching my son’s eyes close, never to open again, has faded from my thoughts. It is with me every second of every hour. When good things happen in my life I think of David and how he would have loved it. When bad things happen in my life, I think of David and I’m thankful he didn’t have to be there for those times. When I’m bored, I wish he were there because he could entertain me. When I eat good food, I think how he would have liked it. When I fart, I think of the noise he used to make on his arm and how we would laugh. He is never more than the tiniest step away from being there in my memory. But because I grieved, and cried for hours on end, I have learned to deal with that sadness, and it has become a part of me. And one of the most important parts of that grieving was talking about him endlessly after he died.

I know that after her brother died, Abby tread very carefully around the subject of her brother. She had never seen Leslie and I so devastated and depressed and I’m sure that it not only hurt her, but scared her. If we had let her, I imagine she would have buried most of her feelings in fear that talking about David would bring us too much pain and heartache. Because we knew this, we talked about our feelings all the time. Everything I went through was a chance to discuss my feelings with Abby so she knew why I was so sad and that it would be damaging not to be sad over what had happened. We told stories about David, and I shared the hopes and dreams that had been stolen from me, so she would understand that those feelings of being cheated were normal and healthy. Often it led to tears on my part, but I told her that the tears were welcome. If there were no tears there would be no healing. I’m not sure at 7 years of ages she completely understood, but she didn’t need to understand, the message got through. Crying was Good. Crying was natural. Every tear honored David and kept us tied together as a family, and kept him near us. She got it. She still would hesitate sometimes to bring him up, and when she eventually did, I could see her watching us, judging our reactions and looking to see if what we were saying about the tears being good was true.

David sumner collage

But for other people in our life, this has not always been the case. People have, and still do, avoid mentioning his name to us. I’m sure it’s because they fear upsetting us. But I think it’s something more than that too. I think it’s because people are afraid themselves to tread back into that nightmare. Leslie and Abby and I have lived the nightmare of losing David every single moment of every day he has been gone. If I want to, I can find the tears over it in a moment. But to be able to move forward, we have cried hard and long, and for us, the day to day has returned to normal. The pain is with us always, but we have faced it, looked it squarely in the eye and come to understand and accept it. Other people seem to be more like the wizards and witches in the Harry Potter book series who were afraid to mention Voldemorte’s name for fear it will somehow invoke his presence. Harry, like us, found that avoiding his name simply gave him more power. And it is like that with David’s death; avoiding the story and not speaking of the memories of David simply give the pain and heartache more power.

Hell, I take any chance I can get to speak of David! In fact I have noticed that some people, though they try to hide it, get uncomfortable when I mention his name. Those that knew him, who perhaps had not thought of the tragedy for quite some time, often react subtly like I have kicked them in the groin when his name flows from my lips without a moment’s hesitation. Just this past week I spoke to one of his old coaches back in our hometown over the phone. We discussed many things, and of course David’s name came up. When it did I could hear the all too familiar change in his voice. This guy is a big, strong, no nonsense kind of guy, but I could hear his voice crack and his words start to falter a bit. I acted as if I had not noticed and continued speaking freely about David and us and our lives. It actually did him some good I believe to hear how I had come to a place where I could speak of David without slipping into the depths of despair. But I have had the “advantage” of living with it constantly since he died. He had not. For him the pain of having lost David was still much fresher. He didn’t live it every day so he had not grieved and come to stare that ugly accident down the way we have.

I love talking about David; I even don’t mind relating the story of his accident to those that will listen. It helps me continue to move forward. If you have someone in your life who has lost someone, anyone, don’t be afraid of invoking their memory. Though it may bring tears, those tears are healing. We want to speak of those that are gone. We have to; it’s all we have left. Yes it hurts, it’s supposed to. If it didn’t it would mean we didn’t care. But after a while the hurt becomes smiles and laughter about the wonderful person we all had the good fortune to have in our lives. Having a chance to speak to those that knew him is a gift to me. It keeps him alive. And it may help you too, to see that life has continued. So, do us all a favor. If he comes to mind, speak his name, please. He’s always on my mind; it’s nice to know he meant enough to you that you miss him too.

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