BY ARMEN BACON
Raising glasses to honor our children, this friendship, and ancestors we were certain had brought us together for this extraordinary test of survival, we found ourselves suddenly teetering, unsure of our readiness to set free this work we had devoted ourselves to for the past three years. It felt a little like letting your toddler cross the street alone for the first time, holding your breath the entire time. This morning, I pause to breathe it all in, and share a few defining moments.
Our memoir, Griefland, made its debut at the Central California Women’s Conference, in Fresno, California, surrounded by a sea of family, friends and loving supporters. As I approached the podium, I couldn’t help but notice the faces of grief-stricken women, who, like us, were looking for a shred of hope to remind them they would smile again. Photo ops, pens running out of ink, hearts cracked wide open – all soothed by hands touching hands, warm embraces, a series of honest and raw unrehearsed moments – the stuff real life is made from. Whispers became symphonies, cries became choruses, voices eventually chanting a stunning three-part harmony of strength, solidarity, sisterhood.
Griefland was suddenly in book stores. I’ve always attended book-signings as a fan but now – these were scheduled for me, the author. One man wept uncontrollably, apologizing profusely, telling me through tears that his wife had taken her life 33 years ago. His grief remained fresh, wounds still oozing, he confessed in a moment of surrender. During the book talk, I likened the journey to Griefland to being hijacked, arriving in a foreign country without passport, luggage, or language. Beneath my words, a soundtrack of tears, visual images of breathlessness, faces in search of someone missing. Together, we embraced the sorrow, finding shoulders to lean on, forging the long-awaited community Nancy and I envisioned while writing our book. Both Nancy and I come from large and loving Armenian families – families rich with history and tradition, but this new, grief-stricken ‘family’ was more foreign, more fragile.
A few weeks ago, I stood before hundreds of students to share a mother’s tale of survival. They came right back at me with eyes wide open, hands raised, some grabbing and reaching, others floundering in mid air, quizzing me for minute details about the aftermath of loss. A generously long line formed at the end of the day, one young woman embracing my pain while sharing her own; another young man anxious and overcome with sweaty palms, broke down while whispering into my ear the loss of his brother. A few shy others, begged permission to e-mail me their stories after hours. Together, we vowed to remain standing, all feet planted on Earth. The world wants and needs more from you, I had reminded them during my remarks. As they scattered, I watched them hold on to each other, hands clasped, some arms locked and intertwined, heads tilted inward. In the margins of the school yard, a few had ventured off in solitude. These were the ones I desperately wanted to scoop up and take home with me.
A few days later, the owners of a local bookstore, Petunia’s Place, called and asked me to stop by during my lunch hour to sign books. While autographing the page, I overheard a hushed whimper from a corner of the bookstore generally filled with a child’s laughter. Looking up, I spotted a woman trying to catch her breath. Not wanting to intrude on her moment, yet indescribably drawn to her, I dropped my pen, stood up and quietly walked her way. Without the exchange of words, I could see she was overcome with sorrow. In the next moment, we were introducing ourselves, exchanging stories – hers included illness, young children, a daughter in distress, a family in crisis. While I knew I couldn’t fix the direness of her circumstance, I knew I could wrap my arms around her and offer support. In the grief world, it’s called ‘finding your people.’ It’s surprising who shows up during our moments of darkness and who, for unexplainable reasons, must look away. I needed to give this woman permission to grieve, remind her that she was loved, supported and that it was okay for her to unravel.
When tragedy strikes, we often find ourselves devoid of protocols, never quite certain what to do or say. But from personal experience let me just say that doing something always trumps doing nothing. There is magic in helping others. Ask yourself what your heart calls on you to do, and then take an action step. Be a friend. It can be as simple as a gentle hug, a three- sentence love note, home-baked chorags, or a call saying, “I’m thinking about you right now.” Having answers and solutions are never a prerequisite. But show up, preferably in person. And then, just be human. Sometimes, words are completely unnecessary.