Strangers. Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t live without ‘em. They’re everywhere! In the grocery store, in a conference room, in the beauty shop, at every cash register, waiting to pick up kids at school. Everywhere we go, we chat with people in passing. Most of the time, the comments are benign. “Sun’s out again. Sure is a beautiful day!” We respond, “Sure is! Have a great one!” But, if you are stuck in line, introduced to a business associate, or assigned a seat next to someone on an airplane, the small talk gets upgraded a notch. At this point, mere comments morph into questions. There is the typical fare like “Where are you from?” and “What do you do for a living?” I have heard my husband complain about the latter. I mean, does what you do to make money define you? But, for Bryan and I, the MOTHER of all small talk questions is, “How many children do you have?” Um, do you want the long answer or the short one?
You want to know how answering that question makes me feel? Watch this.
I love this clip! It is so ridiculous that the actors can’t even keep a straight face. It makes me laugh every time I watch it. And, I identify with it 100%. In fact, we’ve been to Disney World twice since Audrey died, and I tried not to tell anyone at the time, but I couldn’t help but feel empty a lot of the time we were there. I noticed all of the families fighting and all of the morbidly obese people who couldn’t walk through the park and I wondered, “Lord, is this all there is? Is this really the happiest place on earth?” (Funny side note: In Mary Beth Chapman’s new book Choosing to See, she has a whole chapter about their trip to Disney World titled, “The Unhappiest Place on Earth”. Guess I’m not the only one.)
Anyway, take note of the SNL jingle:
♫“You’re enjoying your day. Everything’s going your way. Then along comes Debbie Downer. Always there to tell you about a new disease, a car accident, or killer bees. You’ll beg her to spare you, “Debbie, please!” But, you can’t stop Debbie Downer!”♪
Bryan and I have joked time and again about the Debbie Downer skit. After all, you have to keep your sense of humor. While being honest about the death of your child is not the same as being a negative pessimistic downer about everything, it is nevertheless a less-than-socially-acceptable choice in some circles. It is a very real dilemma we face almost daily. Do we tell the truth and risk making someone uncomfortable, or do we lie or bend the truth to protect others and in the process stuff our own feelings? Early on, we had to decide how we were going to talk about Audrey’s death. How will we define it for our children? How will we talk about her in extended family gatherings? How will we discuss our daughter and our grief amongst friends? What will we project to total strangers? When will we speak up? When will we be silent? What is the least painful way? What is the right thing to do? This is big stuff.
I bring up this topic because if you are dealing with anything serious, you know what I mean. You may have lost a child, too. But, it may be something completely different you are facing. Maybe your marriage is falling apart. Maybe you are struggling with a rebellious child. Whatever it is, small talk can hurt. When someone casually asks, “How are you doing?”…do they really want to know? How can you be sure? Will you say, “Fine, fine” when you’re not? What will the emotional backlash be, over time, when you continually have to pretend? Or, instead, will you say, “You know, truthfully, I’m having a hard time right now”? If you do, will you be forced to elaborate? Or, can you just leave it at that? Short and sweet, to the point…and honest. Probably not. Small talk can so often become BIG talk.
In December, I went to the home of a sweet, precious, hospitable neighbor for a ladies luncheon. All of the invitees were neighbors except for one woman who was a good friend of the hostess. She had recently moved here from out of state. As we all sat around the dining room table, in the course of the lunch conversation, I mentioned redecorating Audrey’s old bedroom for use as Bryan’s office. I noticed that the friend shot a glance at the hostess. I wondered, “Did I make her uncomfortable?” I concluded that maybe she didn’t know I had lost a child. People are often shocked by our tragedy. It’s nothing new. But, a few minutes later, she spoke up. “Did I hear you say you have a daughter who died? My 10-year-old son died of cancer three years ago.”
By then, lunch was almost over. And, people may have wanted to give the two of us some privacy to talk about what we had in common. I will give the benefit of the doubt because I know a lot of these ladies, and they have listened to me before. But, I kid you not: There is no better way to clear a room than to start talking about your child’s death! It is almost comical!
Ironically, as the woman and I talked, we discussed just how difficult it is to decide when and how to tell new acquaintances about our loss. She told me that her new counselor advised her not to put that information out there first because “it does not define her.” I felt like I had been stabbed in the gut when I heard those words. My initial reaction was to wonder, “What kind of wacky counselor would advise a grieving woman not to talk about her child?” I know I didn’t hide this well. I asked, “Are you ok with that?” She told me that she was and that she knew God was telling her it was time to put on new clothes, to remove her clothes of mourning. Not to “move on” but to “move forward”. Somehow that rubbed unsettlingly up against my line of thinking with regard to my own personal walk through grief.
All in all, we had a lovely conversation. I could tell we were both hungry for someone to identify with our pain, and I knew that this was a divine appointment. I tried to imagine leaving all of my support and starting over. I shuddered. When we parted ways, we exchanged information and agreed to contact one another. But, I couldn’t shake some icky feelings. First, I thought I had probably come on too strong, shared too much, and ruined the Christmas party for everyone else (Debbie Downer style). Second, I was bothered by this mom’s newfound peace about not defining herself by her loss. Was I doing that? Was I staying in my grief when I should be “moving forward”? Did she think I needed to change as much as I thought she did? What was the right way?
In the next few days, I visited her son’s website originally set up to keep family and friends updated on his condition and how they were all faring. I was amazed at the faith expressed in the pages. So many people loved and supported this beautiful family. A large sum of money had been raised to help him fight cancer and to help other children fight cancer in his name. The website included a video of his father preaching to their church, boldly proclaiming Christ in the midst of terrible tragedy. But, now, this brave mother was leaving everything known, everything that was home to her. In faith, she was following God into the next chapter. No wonder she had to look at things differently than me! I was so relieved when I received an email from her saying she was glad to meet me, wanted to mail me something, and looked forward to getting to know me. Even if she was just being nice, it was a relief!
A week later, I sent her a CD I love and she sent me a Bible study excerpt that had recently changed her perspective. My CD shows how one family is being transparent in grief, standing on Scripture, and publicly teaching. Her Bible study shows how one woman decided to throw off her mourning clothes in exchange for a new wardrobe so that she could receive the next thing God had planned for her (see the book of Ruth). Both, I realized, are sincere and right responses from people who desperately sought God’s hand in their pain.
In hindsight, I don’t know why I thought there was a “right” way to handle things. God revealed to me that my problem was thinking that either of us was wrong. This sweet woman told me that since she is a “rule follower” she doesn’t read books about grief because she knows it would make her feel like she was “doing it wrong”. I heard in my head: Hello, pot. This is the kettle. You’re black! I was doing the same thing by comparing my response to hers! What if God had two different plans for two different people? Isn’t that possible? Duh.
I have concluded that there is certainly more than one right way to respond to the “mother of all small talk questions”. But, you do have to pick one. So, how do I respond? Usually with the truth. “I have three children. Two here and one in Heaven.” Does that make some people uncomfortable? Yes! Sometimes, it ends the conversation dead in its tracks. And, sometimes, it provides the perfect opportunity to share my faith. One thing I expect: it’s always a gamble. I never know which way it is going to go. But, I choose to answer this way because I want the chance to share Jesus with people. Often, I am given the opportunity to encourage someone else in their grief or pain. It may be uncomfortable for some to hear, but I am convinced that discomfort is not the world’s worst evil. In fact, often, we must be uncomfortable to grow. I also don’t believe that I am sharing about Audrey or our loss simply to hear myself talk. If I thought what I had to say was depressing, I would shut up! But, I don’t believe that for one minute. What I have to share is HOPE! I have found the keys to the kingdom. I have lost a child, and I still have HOPE! I want to let others in on this little secret of mine. It’s a good one.
It has been a process, but I am becoming very comfortable with being that crazy lady who is always talking about Jesus and her deceased child. Sure, it comes up in settings where the social norm is to discuss Christmas decorating, school events, and the latest episode of Modern Family (which I think is hilarious, by the way). But, that matters to me less and less. You know why? Because people are dying inside to just say what they’re feeling. Many people at a party and in the midst of day-to-day affairs are harboring their own pain, questioning matters of life and death and faith. I’m just there to make it easier for them to be honest and to point them to the One who is still on the throne.
Yes, the answer to the “mother of all small talk questions” was decided for me long before I ever faced this dilemma. It was decided the day God made me who I am. Sarah’s my name, BIG talk’s my game. However you decide to handle your pain, though, know that you have at least one comrade out there who gets how hard it is to make up your mind.