Shortly before my mother died last spring, she made a comment that brought me up short:
“I wish we’d talked about it more,” she said. That was all.
“It” was a defining event in all our lives—the death of my 16-year-old son in a car accident. Concerned about the toll it was taking on her and my dad, my husband and I tried to keep the depths of our pain hidden from them. Even several years after the accident, we didn’t level with them. Our conversations ran along the lines of, “Yeah, it’s really hard, but we’re doing okay.”
That, I see now, was a mistake.
How can any of us act with grace and wisdom when the unthinkable has happened? It’s rare when we can. But we can at least try to live within our circles of love in a way that strengthens their foundations. To do otherwise, in fact, is to sell ourselves and our loved ones short.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken to people who have lost loved ones and who say no one in their family ever spoke of it. It was as if the person had simply vanished. The pain of carrying the grief alone was excruciating.
Knowing this now, I wish I’d talked with my parents not necessarily about the depths of my sorrow, but the odd jolts and lurches: How I’d be doing fine one moment and on my knees the next. How amazingly good I’d felt the first time I was able to truly laugh. How at that moment I realized I might survive. I did talk about all this with a close friend. But she’d lost her husband a few years earlier. She knew all about grief, so it was safe to confide in her.
Safe is the operative word here. We don’t speak of the horrific to spare each other pain, true. But there’s often another, unspoken reason.
We don’t want to put our weakness on display.
One day a few years after we lost Reid, I happened to hear a radio interview with a researcher named Brené Brown about the importance of vulnerability. Brown is a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, and the author of the book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. She became well-known when videos of her TED talks went viral.
Much of Brown’s work explores how our penchant for playing things safe gives rise to all matter of problems, from micromanagement to even shame. As an example, Brown asked the interviewer to think about what happens when people you know suffer a tragedy. You want to reach out to them. But you procrastinate. You’re afraid you’ll say something shallow or insensitive, or maybe even cry. So you do nothing. One day you run into them in the grocery store and feel deeply ashamed.
“Yes!” I nearly shouted at the radio. I couldn’t count the number of times people had apologized to us for not contacting us after Reid’s accident. We weren’t keeping track of who had called or written and who hadn’t. Not at all. But in the faces of those who told us they were sorry, I saw real anguish.
People blow the chance to make meaningful connections all the time, Brown continued, because they don’t want to put themselves in a vulnerable position. Connecting with others is a vital human need. But it doesn’t happen unless you’re willing to take the chance that you’ll somehow be rejected. “It doesn’t count if you tweet it or post it on Facebook,” she added. Or send an email, I thought. Opening your heart to someone else requires a conversation.
This is not just a lesson for personal relationships. It has profound implications for every aspect of our lives, including our work, and especially the work of helping others. A willingness to be vulnerable helps us look at suffering and feel compassion instead of the need to escape. It allows us to admit that we don’t have all the answers. It lets us own up to our mistakes and ask for help. No organization, no business—no group at all—can be effective without people who are willing to take that chance.
Nurturing a circle of family love requires exactly the same.
If I could do it over again with my parents, you bet I’d open up to them. It would have been tremendously healing for us to cry together.
All I can do to right that is to remember it—and to take a chance the next time I sense that I should open up to someone who cares about me, who sincerely wants to know when he asks, “How are you guys doing these days?” Leveling with him, or her, will help us both.