Every once in a while, I travel to the small town where my husband is buried. Almost every visit means that in one place or another — a gas station, a bakery, a hotel, a shop — someone will ask me the question: So what brings you to town?
Questions Can Land Us in Unexpected Territory
In my case, the question itself doesn’t upset me — it’s not like I can’t remember why I’ve come to town or I am trying to forget that my husband is buried there. If that were the case, I would’ve stayed home. I’m not worried about my heart being crushed by the question.
I have, however, spent time worrying about how the conversation will go. Who will ask me the question this time? How will they take my answer? I am expecting the question by now; they will walk into the conversation unaware. I am going to answer with some honesty; they may wish I wouldn’t. I don’t want to embarrass them, to ruin their day because they feel badly about broaching the subject, or to weigh them down with my problems. At the same time, I have not found it within myself to just pretend my visit is meaningless.
The long drive home gives me time to think. I enjoy memories of traveling the same route with my husband. I try to recall making this drive on the way to his funeral, which remains a blur. And I think back over the most recent trip.
Reflection helps me understand how these conversations flow, which in turn shores up my courage for the next time I head out.
So what brings you to town?
I smile and pause, a moment that is generally understood: This conversation isn’t going to go the way you expected.
My mind is busy selecting words that remain truthful while trying hard to avoid being a heavyweight: I have fond memories here. Or, Every-so-often I take a therapeutic road trip out here. Or, if I sense we will be chatting for a bit, It’s a bittersweet day for me. Something brief and fairly nonspecific. I want to signal that the social nicety of asking me why I’m in town isn’t going to produce the reply they expected but also won’t evolve into an endless monologue about me. They are off the hook now, if they don’t want to go there.
Then, if it seems like it would help them finish the conversation, or conversely if a person seems truly interested in continuing the conversation, I move straight to the point. No more dilly-dallying: I am in town to visit the little graveyard where my husband is buried…
For me, a good result is when I have been honest while at the same time making my someone feel comfortable — comfortable enough to conclude the conversation and to move on without shame, or comfortable enough to open up about the questions that have become clearly visible in their eyes. In either case, I am confident I’ve made it past the danger point without letting either of us down.
From there, our conversation may be an opportunity to explore a world unknown to them — the world of life after loss.
Being Open Is a Blessing
If you examined my heart, you would discover the truth: I would prefer to stay far away from the unknown territory of someone else’s simple-yet-not-simple questions.
However, I’ve known too many people who have been paralyzed by the whole idea of being around death. In this area, I have committed myself to openness. I will answer an everyday question with a bit more honesty than may be expected, and I will keep the door open in case there is a need for deeper conversation. Honesty signals that real questions are allowed and will be answered truthfully: Yes, you may ask me about something that may not be a part of your life experience yet, may not be talked about in your circles, but is all around you… and somewhere in the back of your mind you know it.
Is it overstating the case to say that becoming more relaxed in these conversations has the potential to impact many others in our lifetimes?
On the very best trips, a memorable conversation has emerged. Two lives can cross for just moments and a brief but meaningful connection can be made. Often when someone older has joined me in conversation, we end up talking about our similar losses. When someone younger is interested in chatting, there are often questions — at times probably asked in an awkward effort to show respect and not brush me off, but more often a rush of deeply-held thoughts and fears tumbles out, as if this someone finally has an opportunity to ask about weighty matters.
This past January was like that.
Me: …Yes, I come up here every-so-often. My husband is buried up here.
Young waitress (with an apologetic look and the glisten of a tear in her eye): How long has it been?
Me: It’s been five years now, so it isn’t new, it isn’t tender. It’s okay.
Young waitress: How long will you stay?
Me: Oh, I’ve been to the little graveyard already. I’m on my way home now.
She moves in and out of serving other tables, but is drawn back to mine whenever she is free.
Young waitress: So what do you… do you talk to him when you’re there?
Me: Yes, I talk. I’m not sure Shane hears me (smiling). I don’t know how that works, but I talk, to him or to God. Sometimes I sing a little—no one else is out there. Mostly I’m just… there.
She asks a variety of questions and even shares her own love story, which has been complicated as so many are.
Young waitress: Oh, I just believe in true love. You are still married to him, you know.
Me: Yes (looking down at my left hand, then raising it to show her my wedding ring, still on).
Young waitress (returning with my receipt on a small tray): Thank you… (holding out the tray) I brought two mints, one for you and one for him.
I enjoy the thought that, over the years, I may have blessed a dozen or more people on these trips to the little graveyard. Surely there are widows and orphans and others who will cross their paths and appreciate the blessing of comfortable conversations on tricky topics.
There is value in setting others at ease.
Some of you are already freely blessing others with your openness and might simply benefit from a fresh look at those conversations. Reflection may bring to mind ways you could set others at ease and invite their questions.
The rest of us can consider ways we could be more open about our particular life challenges and heartbreaks, recognizing how conversation might benefit us all.
Being Interested Is also a Blessing
Being asked questions is good for me, too. I like examining where I’m at and how I feel about things that have happened in my life. I suspect most people like to be asked questions. When I asked the young waitress about her own family, she had some complex and perhaps awkward answers, but I never felt she didn’t appreciate my interest in her story.
And, it is okay to bring up someone who has died. Rest assured that you aren’t bringing up anything that has been forgotten. Instead, your interest affirms that, even when someone isn’t here anymore, his life still matters. That brings great comfort.
Unexpectedly risky questions can be unexpected blessings.
Blog #8, Comments: Have you ever asked a casual question and ended up in unexpected territory? Any lessons learned?