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I Didn’t Want to Mention His Son

Bob Baugher, Ph.D.

He came up to me and matter-of-factly stated, “Just so you know, my son died last Saturday.” Dan taught U.S. History at the college where I worked part-time. I knew that his 21-year-old son had been ill with leukemia, but hadn’t heard a recent update. His delivery of the message was without tears, so back then, I somehow thought that, since it was an expected death, and since he was not emotionally demonstrative, that it wasn’t a gut-wrenching loss for him. Knowing what I’ve learned since then from thousands of parents who’ve shared stories of the life and death of their sons and daughters, I realize how naïve I was about death and grief.

Over the next few months he appeared to act the same—he certainly looked the same—as he continued to perform the duties of a college instructor. I remember thinking that perhaps I should check in to see how he was doing. I clearly remember thinking, “No, I don’t want to bring up his son and take the chance of him becoming upset.” So, I did what most people do: I remained silent and quietly avoided any mention of his son, his loss, his grief.

About a year later I had created a new college course: Death & Dying. One day Dan came up to me and said, “If you’d like me to speak to your class about my son’s death, I’d be glad to.” I remember being somewhat surprised. This was my third time teaching the course and it never crossed my mind to have him speak about his son’s death and his reaction to it. We set a date, and as I thought about what he would say, I envisioned he would share with my students the story his son’s illness, the moment of death, the funeral, and how he had moved on with life. At least that’s what I thought I would hear.

A few weeks later the day arrived. I introduced him to my 30-plus students. He stood up, began his story and as I sat there, I remember being transformed. This man missed his son. Everyday. He spoke proudly of his son’s life: his accomplishments in school, in football and baseball, his volunteer work at the nearby nursing home, his love for his sister, his expertise in working on cars and much more. As he stood there sharing the life of his precious son tears streamed down his face. He spoke of his anger at the hospital for missing some of the early signs of the illness, his guilt as a father for letting his son live alone, for not checking on his vegetarian diet, for not being there enough in the early years. He spoke of his confusion in his responses to his grief and of not understanding how different his wife’s reactions were from his own. He wanted us to know that this grief is one you do not ever get over. Ever.

I sat there in shock realizing how little I knew of this man’s grief—a colleague who nodded each day as he walked past me, later watching him hustle off to teach his classes, and return to his office. All the while I had no clue what he was going through. How could I? He said not a word of his grief. And, I didn’t ask out of naive concern that any mention of his son would be met either with, “I’m fine, Bob. I’ve moved on from it.” or with a tearful, “Thanks a lot, Bob, I was doing fine a minute ago until you reminded me of what I lost.” Back then, I never considered a third possible reaction that might go something like this: “Thank you for asking, Bob. I miss him so much. I remember a time when he and I…” or “I’ve been dealing with a lot of anger recently.” Or “I feel so guilty that…”

Thank you, Dan. Sharing your son and your story with me and my students gave me the wisdom and courage to speak up. I’ll be always grateful for the gift you gave me. The gift to those in grief that says I can ask how they are doing, say the name of their loved one, and give them what they need at that moment: a listening ear, a caring heart, silence, a touch, and a realization that I cannot fix it. And, isn’t that what we all need in the midst of our grief?

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