You’re waiting for your kids at pick-up time. Your parents are visiting from Akron for the weekend. You’ve prepped the spare bedroom, shoved toys into the closet, pulled out the “cute” sweater your mom sent a month ago that your daughter thinks is “so ugly it looks like a bug threw up on it.”
The mood of the day is that blend of excited and stressed that everyone who lives more than a time-zone away from their parents experiences when the family is coming to town. You start to chat up the other mom waiting for her kids. But it all goes wrong when she says, “Lilly doesn’t know her grandfather. My father died when I was a child.”
You had no idea, did you? That’s because your friend is a member of the Dead Dads (or Moms) Club. It’s the club for kids who lost a parent when they were a kids. She learned early not only that life changes faster than you can say, “stroke,” but also that people hate talking about death. They remember the face everyone gives them when they said they lost their Daddy. It’s not pity, it’s a split second flinch - as if having a death in the family is contagious, like MRSA. Instead of saying, “I’m so sorry ” and pretending your dentist just called to confirm your root canal, try empathy:
1. Acknowledge Her Experience – “That must be really hard for you.” You say “be” instead of “been” because she is still sad that her parent is not coming to visit this weekend and never will come to visit. That sadness never goes away. It was hard when she was a child too. But she needs support for the hard and sad now that’s still happening.
2. Ask Her Something – “I’d love to hear about him/her.” She wants to remember her Daddy because she’s afraid she’s the only one who does. She may look and sound emotional when she answers you. That’s because she's so touched that you care enough to listen for even a minute.
3. Thank Her – She’s so used to holding back her membership in the Dead Dads Club because she knows it makes people uncomfortable. When she was in school, she may have been the only one in the whole school with a dead parent. By telling you this, she’s sharing her vulnerability. She’s taking a risk and trusting you. Surely that’s something to be grateful for.
4. Don’t Forget – There will come an event, like “Grandparents and Special Friends Day” at school. She will be there wearing a huge smile. Her kids will be with the living grandparents, or not. This day is killing her. She is faking a smile while she shoves a lifetime of disappointment inside an imaginary the box under her ribs. Give her an extra smile or a hug. Take her out for a drink later. Don't get nervous when she orders a single malt, she can handle it - Dead Dads Club members need the burn.