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  • Writer's pictureAmy Noel Green

Words Fail

Today, we took a photo that makes us proud. It captured a moment 14 years in the making. As we took the photo, I wondered what I would say when I posted it. I could say, "All of my children are away at school." But that's not true.

When you've lost a member of your family, words often fail you. Simple questions become convoluted and painful as you wrestle with how to answer them.

My hardest simple question is, "How many kids do you have?" I have five; if I'm willing to bombard you with a sadness that you weren't expecting and didn't sign up for when you engaged in conversational pleasantries with me. Four is my answer if I want to keep things simple, but it requires me to bury a new, different kind of sadness: The sadness of leaving my son out of my story in little ways, in order to consider other people.

We all have hard, simple questions in our lives. You may not have experienced a loss in your family, but you've weathered losses in life -- disappointments that transform simple questions into private agonies. "When will the two of you have kids?" "What are you doing after you graduate?" "Are you married?" "Do you get that from your father?" "Can I get you a drink?" "What are your kids up to these days?"

Sometimes we share the intimacy of our pain with others, and sometimes we choose not to. That's okay. It should be a choice. But we should each remember that everyone has pain they don't have to explain to us, and we should do our best to consider and love each other without requiring that people give us a good reason to first. Everyone has been through something and is worthy of your compassion.

All of my children are not away at school. There should be five new pairs of shoes, five pristine backpacks, five first day of school smiles. And there aren't. There are only four. And four is a lot. Four is good. It just isn't the whole story. All of my children are not away at school, but all of my children are away.

Words are imperfect. They fail us. They betray us when we try to use them to convey the fullness of a story that isn't simple. Don't rely on other people's words to tip you off to their pain. Words don't always do that. Assume that pain is there, somewhere, and love the people around you extra because of it.

If you're willing, share with me in the comments below what the "hardest simple question" is in your life.

Amy Noel Green is a conference and keynote speaker. She is a writer and game designer who has received international press attention for her work on the video game about her son Joel, That Dragon, Cancer.

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