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  • bethhewett

Just say their names. Please?

Consider today’s post a public service announcement: Say the name of the person who died—as often as you can and to the people who most care.

Say that name to the person’s parents, spouse, children, siblings, friends, and coworkers. 

Say that name with love, honor, gusto, and kind humor.

Say that name in connection with early stories of his or her life or with stories of your own feelings about his or her death.

The people who most love a deceased person will never hear his or her name often enough. And when they don’t hear the name, they fear their loved one has been forgotten. Maybe she didn’t really matter in the world? Maybe he isn’t remembered? If he isn’t remembered, did he really live? No, says the loved one with a shake of the head or a rub of a tearing eye; I refuse to believe this. Of course she lived; I named her Isabel. Of course he mattered; he had a successful business whose ongoing success meant 30 employees could feed and house their families.

When I was in my late twenties, my husband and I learned that our friends’ 10-year-old son had a brain tumor. They were stunned. So were we. As we all lived in Germany with the U.S. military at the time, they arranged for their apartment to be packed up and flew to the nearest Army base that had the hospital equipped to care for children with cancer. And they remained there for two years until their precious son died in his mother’s arms. We stayed in touch through Christmas cards but didn’t see each other for another twenty years until we met for lunch in Florida, near St. Augustine. 

As we talked, I knew I wanted to talk about their son to tell them I still remembered what he was like as a funny, likable child. I told them how Adam’s life and death affected me and how I remembered him and his sweet face all these years later. Both parents sat there with tears streaming down their faces. They said the tears were fine. They had wondered over the years who still remembered their little boy, and they appreciated how I’d let them know his life mattered to me. Their tears were both of grief and happiness.

My talking about Adam didn’t make them sad. Bereaved people always have their loved ones close to their hearts, and there’s always a bit of sadness. Bereaved parents particularly remember their children—always, in nearly every situation—and therefore especially appreciate hearing their names.

On the contrary, not mentioning one’s loved one can genuinely hurt, causing great pain. One client of mine whose baby died shortly after birth is especially sensitive to hearing her daughter’s name. When she wasn’t mentioned among the grandchildren during a family celebration, the ensuing pain led to tension that, without intervention, could have created a lasting estrangement.

Here’s another example from my own mistake. One of my cousins died while I lived in Germany. Because I was so far from home, I didn’t go to the funeral. I don’t believe I ever even sent a condolence card to my aunt and uncle. Sadly, I sort of ignored the loss as a way of not being uncomfortable myself. There were even rumors that he brought it on himself through drug use, so there was family talk questioning whether his parents really had a right to grieve; he did it to himself, right? (That’s an example of disenfranchised grief, by the way.) When I didn’t say anything to my relatives about their profound loss, I wasn’t thinking I would bring up pain by talking about him. I was just ignorantly uninformed about grief and then later embarrassed about my thoughtlessness. 

One day, many years later, I felt strongly that I had wronged my aunt and uncle. I spoke with my still obviously sad aunt. It was clear that despite her own kindness and laughter, something essential was missing from her demeanor. I told her that I realized I hadn’t acknowledged her loss of her son Bryan. I told her I should have talked to her about him and given her my deepest sympathies for the loss of his precious life. She turned to me, looked me squarely in the eye, and said: “So, why don’t you do it now?” I did. I said his name, apologized for my thoughtlessness, and told her what I remembered of him. There was suddenly a clarity between us, a sense that we could talk more freely and engage more deeply. But that clarity was on me to create, not on her.

Similarly, if you think of someone who has died—a childhood friend or a relative, for example, I invite you to connect with the family even years after the loss. You won’t make them sad by bringing up the loss and saying the person’s name. Bereaved people generally are touched to hear about their loved ones. So write a letter, use their names, send a photo, return a precious memento and tell why it is special, tell a story or two, send flowers or a cake. Do anything that will let the family know you remember and care about this loved one. Your action may well bring tears, but it can heal pain, too.

Say their names!


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