The old joke has it that there’s no longer pause in a man’s life between the time when a woman he desires says, “I will!” and when she sighs with relief, “I’m not.” Cute adage, but I can think of dozens of longer pauses. The gap between, “I really like you too, but…” and whatever horror story ends the sentence; the millennium that ticks away between, “We were really impressed by your resume” and the whole new lives that unfold for you depending on the next word. And, to me, the worst of all pauses: that between “Oh my god, I’m so sorry about your grandmother!” and, inevitably, “So, uh, you wanna get burritos for lunch or what?”
Oh yes. The dreaded sorry-about-your-grandma pause. Forget rocket launches and brain surgery: perfectly timing the condolence lull is the most difficult split-second negotiation in the whole of the human experience.
When faced with this conundrum — from an acquaintance, say, or co-worker — it’s important to convey your concern and sympathy to a moment of reverent silence. If you revel in said sympathy for too long, however, you run the risk of adding awkwardness to the bereaved’s burden or making them feel obligated to share intimate emotional details of their suffering. Worse, they might start crying on you.
Personally, I’m a huge, clumsy oaf renowned the world over for accidentally saying a bad thing at a worse time. Upon learning that a co-worker has a sister who is ten months younger than her, I’m liable to blurt out: “Wow, your mom healed up fast!” When a friend complains of his parents’ ailing health, I accidentally choke out, “Well, at least you don’t have to worry about taking someone home to meet the parents.” I am a hazard to myself and others.
So you can see why, with my lack of self-editing, I live in fear of the sorry-about-your-grandma pause. In fact, I’m so afraid of it am I that until very recently, I attempted to avoid the pause altogether. If a friend came to me with heavy emotional troubles, I would give them all the hugs they needed, and sit there gazing soulfully at them, afraid to speak. If they talked, they talked; otherwise, it became an emotional staring contest. And I played to win.
I might have kept this up forever, had I not had occasion recently to reflect on the nature of grief. For various reasons, I was reminded of a situation that arose the summer after I graduated from college. Despite being on birth control at that time, one evening I noticed my period was several weeks late. When it finally flooded forth, I also passed several large chunks of tissue, one of which resembled in divine detail an oversized and particularly plaintive fetus.
To say I was distraught would be an understatement. I couldn’t help reading the tissue like a tea-leaf: had I miscarried? Qere these signs of endometriosis? Cysts, cancer, a psychic premonition of a barren womb? I shrugged off my boyfriend’s embrace and immediately drove to the apartment of my best friend and her (at the time) new boyfriend, with whom my relations had been frosty in the preceding months.
While I sobbed the story out to her, he waited alone in the kitchen. Finally, when my eyes were dry and gritty, there came a light tap at the door. “Hey,” her boyfriend said, poking his head in. “I made you an omelette.” He gave a weak smile and helplessly shrugged the plate into my hand. And without a question, I took the plate and began to eat, feeling a little bit whole for the first time that day.
If you were taking a multiple choice quiz about the best way to console a woman after a potential miscarriage, “make her an omelette” would be the joke answer. Choice D. But damned if it isn’t the single most consoling thing anyone has done for me in my entire life. Because the fact of the matter is, he and I weren’t friends, he didn’t owe me anything, and there was nothing he could do, really — and yet, despite all that, he chose to do something, no matter how silly or irrelevant. And it turns out the thought was the only thing that counted. (Although, for the record, it was a darn good omelette.)
While I’m still liable to stick my foot in my mouth during times of others’ bereavement, whenever someone drops a sympathy bomb and every cell in my body urges me to back away quietly, I try to remember the Miscarriage Omelette.
Grief is messy, and I think it’s a natural inclination to want to counteract loved ones’ grief with tidy, perfect little bites of Hallmark-quality condolences. But even if it’s untidy as all get-out, it seems to me the most important part of offering support is to try to do something — anything, no matter how ridiculous — to show the other person that you love them.
And even if the sorry-about-your-grandma silence is the worst in the world (it is) and you are exceptionally bad at breaking it (lord knows I am), you may be doing the best thing in the world to try your flawed best.