Since Matthew died, I’ve been reminded some people suffer from an affliction called Frantic Urge to Kill Silence (FUKS). A conversation’s taking place, more than four seconds of silence ensue, and BAM – FUKSers’ (not to be confused with fuckers, though I suppose situations exist in which the two come dangerously close to becoming one in the same) heads start spinning. And it’s as if they’re on a merry-go-round. An extremely fast merry-go-round. On a Jamaican playground. Being pushed by a young Usain Bolt.
And to stop the merry-go-round, they must quickly kill the silence. With anything. No matter what it is. And, oftentimes, anything becomes the worst, or most cringe-worthy, thing possible.
FUKS often manifests in job interviews. I’ve seen this throughout my career in accounting, a field wrought with those choosing a profession in hopes they’ll never have to speak to anyone, ever, but much to their surprise and disdain, they do, and it starts in the interview process.
There was the one time an interviewer I knew asked a candidate, “Can you tell me a little about yourself?” And this was the only question the interviewer asked. Because the candidate’s answer was so long.
There was another time I asked a nervous candidate, “Can you tell me about your biggest strengths?” And he replied, “Honesty.” Which was fine, until he launched into a story illustrating said honesty. Apparently he and some fraternity brothers traveled out of town, got drunk, and vandalized several hotel rooms. But instead of running, he admitted to his tomfoolery (I love this word), asked his rich parents for money, and eventually footed the bill. (Noble for sure, but this didn’t paint him as our strongest candidate either. But we hired him nonetheless. Because it’s all about who you know. And did I mention his rich parents were also extremely well connected?)
Or there was this other time I worked as an intern at the Office of the State Auditor. As my summer internship concluded they started interviewing full-time candidates for the upcoming fall. In one interview my boss asked a particularly goofy candidate, “What do you like to do for fun?” His answer began with something expected but ended with something unexpected – “The other night my girlfriend and I went out, and we ended up jumping in the fountain right there (gestures towards window), and then both of us contracted this flesh-eating bacteria – I think it was from the fountain…” (He got the job too, because who the hell wants to work for the Office of the State Auditor? Answer – No one.)
And it happens at family gatherings as well. Several years ago, at one of Mark’s family reunions, I sat on the deck next to an older, more distant relative of his. We quietly sipped our drinks, staring out over the forest, listening to the hum of the cicadas at dusk, when, all of a sudden, this relative felt compelled to tell me about a surgery she underwent to correct her prolapsed vagina. (Yes, apparently, this can happen.)
So, needless to say, I was already aware of FUKS prior to Matthew dying. But now I’m reminded of it all the time. Because child loss makes people uncomfortable, bringing out the FUKS in even those who suffer only mild afflictions.
Usually it’s when Matthew comes up in conversation. And I don’t say enough. Or I say a lot. So a FUKSer must either kill the silence or add just as much to the conversation as she perceives I have. And I usually can see it coming. The FUKSer is rambling. And I can feel the trepidation in her voice. She’s moving outside her comfort zone, and I’m physically cringing as I’m waiting for it, silently praying, “Please no, Dear God.” But my silent prayers go unanswered. And now it’s coming, almost in slow motion…
“Re-mem-berrrrr. Ev-er-y-thing hap-pens for a rea-sonnnnn.”
And I cringe further. And then I end the conversation quickly. But I can usually forgive. Because I truly believe FUKS is a real thing. And I know those who suffer from it are so often well-intentioned. (Who it’s much more difficult, sometimes nearly impossible, to forgive are those I can tell wholeheartedly believe these platitudes, because it makes life easier for them – to think my tragedy happened for a reason. And they expect me to just accept all this too, so all can remain right in their world. And, of course, people who say nothing at all, ever, fall into this damn-near-impossible to forgive category as well.)
But, I’ve also been thinking about what’s worked best as far as things to say and ways to support. And about how there’s so many lists of things to say to bereaved parents. And lists of things not to say to bereaved parents. And, I’ve decided, it might actually be pretty simple. More simple than most think.
It might actually come down to just two simple things… Showing up. And, when in doubt, not offering much in the way of words, in such a traumatic, tragic situation, where there is no fix and never will be.
A few come to mind. People who showed up and didn’t overdo it in the words department. People who continue to show up and still have yet to succumb to FUKS.
Some of these people have made the greatest impact of all, just by saying and/or doing the simplest of things.
There’s Mark’s boss, for example, who rushed to the hospital as soon as he heard the news. He was one of the first I saw after I awoke from my emergency C-section and learned Matthew died. He whispered he was sorry, kissed my forehead, and vanished almost as quickly as he’d appeared.
Or there’s one of Mark’s younger, single friends, for whom I doubt pregnancy and child loss was an area of expertise. He visited just hours after Matthew died and sat by my hospital bed. I still don’t remember if he actually said anything. Maybe just, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.” But this was okay. Because he showed up. And really, what could anyone possibly say in a moment like this?
And there’s my brother, who showed up and also didn’t really say much. But, apparently, he whispered to some others, “She’s never going to be the same.” And truer words have never been spoken. And it’s interesting how so many will never understand what he apparently understood so quickly – that part of me died with Matthew that day.
Or there’s a friend to whom I complained about a problem a couple nights ago over text, and she replied, “I love you right where you are, and there is no time limit on that.” And somehow I went to bed feeling a little more at peace than I otherwise would’ve.
I’m not trying to say it’s never okay to offer more. Or that anyone who’s attempted to offer more has failed. It’s quite the opposite, actually. Some rare ones have successfully offered lots, killing the silence and filling it appropriately, providing comfort and managing not to offend. Some of these rare ones are the same ones I listed above, ones who also knew when to keep it simple.
But I guess what I’m saying is for many, it’s too difficult to get it right, in which case, less is more.
It’s always acceptable to simply show up and sit with others in their grief and pain. It’s always acceptable to listen and to allow the silence. It’s often just perfect to offer only simple words such as, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. I love you. I’m thinking of you. I’ll listen to whatever you have to say. I’ll be here for you.”
And it’s even more perfect to continue showing up. Continue sitting with others in their grief and pain. Continue listening. Continue offering simple words.
And it’s interesting that those comfortable in this simplicity, I find, are often the first I let into my most complex thoughts – funny how this works…
After I made light of Chicken Soup for the Soul fans in a recent post, my mom reminded me that long ago my late grandmother wrote something that was eventually published in one of these books.
Always the honest one, my mom explained, “It’s funny. It’s not that profound.”
But then we later agreed, that in all its simplicity, maybe it’s actually very profound…
When my husband, Bob, died very suddenly in January 1994, I received condolences from people I hadn’t heard from in years: letters, cards, flowers, calls, visits. I was overwhelmed with grief, yet uplifted by this outpouring of love from family, friends and even mere acquaintances.
One message touched me profoundly. I received a letter from my best friend from sixth grade through high school. We had drifted somewhat since graduation in 1949, as she stayed in our home town and I had not. But it was the kind of friendship that could quickly resume even if we lost touch for five or ten years.
Her husband, Pete, had died perhaps 20 years ago at a young age, leaving her with deep sorrow and heavy responsibilities: finding a job and raising three young children. She and Pete, like Bob and I, had shared one of those rare, close, “love-of- your-life-you-can-never-forget” relationships.
In her letter she shared an anecdote about my mother (now long deceased). She wrote, “When Pete died, your dear mother hugged me and said, ‘Trudy, I don’t know what to say . . so I’ll just say I love you.'”
She closed her letter to me repeating my mother’s words of so long ago, “Bonnie, I don’t know what to say . . . so I’ll just say I love you.”
I felt I could almost hear my mother speaking to me now. What a powerful message of sympathy! How dear of my friend to cherish it all those years and then pass it on to me. I love you. Perfect words. A gift. A legacy.
–Bonnie J. Thomas (The Legacy, A Cup of Chicken Soup for the Soul)
All so true. All so circular.
All so simple. And, sometimes, simple’s best.