“Hello, may I please speak to Robert Moll?” the woman on the phone asks.
“I’m sorry. He is deceased. How can I help you?” I reply.
My line is practiced, and I can say it now without choking up on the phone. He is deceased. I’ve said those words to strangers over and over again these last seven months — to bankers and doctors and insurance agents, to the electric company, the chiropractor, the newspaper subscription telemarketer. My reply is alway met with silence. The chatty telemarketer mumbles her condolences and hurries off the phone. The rest, who must work with me now instead of Rob, put on a professional tone and quickly complete the task for which they called. Conversation becomes clipped and awkward. We replace Rob’s phone number with mine. My credit card number now pays the bills. Have a good day, m’am. In a single call, they erase all traces of Rob’s life from the accounts that once bore our names together. None of these people will remember he ever existed. I wonder, Do they realize what they are doing? Do they feel the weight of this? Do they see that in this moment they are removing more of my beloved from the world, from me?
In conversations like these — and in myriad others, I often feel I need to brighten things up, act as if it’s not so bad, lighten the weight in the dialogue. I listen as the timbre of my voice rises, and I wonder if I sound more like a peppy cheerleader than a grieving wife. I’m not sure why I feel the need to cushion others from my grief. But it is instinctual, and I find myself doing it more often than not. To questions, I respond with hollow statements like, “We’re doing okay” or “I’m fine.” Damnable small talk that conveys only a sliver of my complex reality. Sometimes, when I’m frustrated or tired or especially lonely, I swap out “dead” for “deceased.” The word packs more punch; it demands more gentleness. But then I feel guilty, like I’ve foisted my sorrow onto someone without warning. I want to ask why people can’t be gentler, why they can’t for a moment drop the professional tone and become human. Decorum tells me that would get me nowhere, so I bite my lip and play along.
In grief, I am learning to talk again. I am navigating all over again the balance between saying what I really mean and saying what is acceptable. Do I say what I want to say or say what I think people want to hear? I am the trained extrovert, the introvert who can make decent small talk to keep the conversation afloat. I know how to navigate around awkward topics. But I find I can’t do that anymore. I don’t want to do it anymore. I struggle to make conversation nowadays that doesn’t mention dying. I try to remind myself that I do not need to shield the world from my grief. I can choose to share it, even if my honesty is jarring for others. It is hard when the one thing you want to talk about is the one thing no one wants to hear.