Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Conversation Starter

A follow up to a blog I wrote a few weeks ago.  The people who lived down the street from us who lost their teenage son to a heart attack while he was away camping.  I would see her almost every day walking her dog past our house and once even bumped into her and froze and asked about her puppy.  My blog lamented how of all people, I was worried about bringing up his death. Mister “people are afraid to talk about my wife” was afraid to talk to them about their son.

Last week I was playing outside with the girls and the couple were walking the dog and of course the girls ran over to pet it.  I went over trying to come up with that perfect death icebreaker (“What a beautiful dog, I see it’s a smaller dog. Did you know those live longer?  Speaking of life and death, I’m sorry to hear about your son”).  I joke, but it is true, trying to find that lead in sentence to bring up a topic where you’re not sure how the other person will react, kills many conversations. 

So having the luxury of already making up my mind from the last time I saw her (she was alone last time), that no matter what, the next time I see this family, I was going to bring up the death of her son.

I approach them and offered a smile. I was confident enough to avoid the small talk, no sense of bringing up the Cubs losing streak when I know the topic of death is going to make an appearance in this conversation.

“Hey guys. I don’t think we’ve officially met, I’m Matt.”

“Hi Matt. I’m Joan and this is Dave.”

“So how are you dealing with what the year has given you?”

Not the best opening line, but to my credit, I didn’t over think of what I was going to say. 

“We have our good days and bad days.” She responds.

“I wish I had some great pearls of wisdom that would make things easier for you, but I don’t.  It’s a rough deal, a game changer, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.” I said.

They began to ask me questions and I was trying to pay attention to their body language and get a sense of when they were becoming uncomfortable and wanted to end the conversation.  They didn’t want to leave.  Even when the dog was getting restless and was pulling away from them, that would’ve been the perfect excuse to leave, but instead keep tugging the leash and telling him to hold on.

At the end of the conversation, that father – who had silent for most of the time – said, “Well, it’s nice to see someone who has gone through this and is able to talk about it.”

After they left, I knew I was glad that I brought up the topic, but I also knew that if I ever came across a similar situation, it would be just as difficult.  It's not easy bringing up such a personal topic to strangers.  But it's worth the gamble.  What did I hear in a grief group I was in:  Best friends may become good friends, good friends may become best friends, and strangers may become friends.


  1. So true. Thank you for sharing.
    Knowing there are people who understand helps. That couple now know they have a neighbor who understands.
    Virtual hugs to you all.

    1. You did good, Matthew. Recently, my cousin took me to a family high school graduation party, hosted by her sister-in-law who had lost her husband in the weeks before. You could tell people were all thinking about it, but no one was saying anything about him. I made it a point to have a private moment with her, and I just said "I want you to know I've been thinking about you; I know what this feels like". Simple as that. She seemed very relieved to talk to me for a minute. That's all it took.