What to Say to a Grieving Friend

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Photo: Lala Vicencio/Corbis

This week, my friend, former editor, and top ten all-time favorite human Linda Dahlstrom wrote a gut-punchingly beautiful essay on TODAY.com about her baby son, Phoenix Lind Anderson. In 2005, Phoenix died of bacterial meningitis. He was 7 months old. Phoenix’s death is what ultimately pushed Linda to take her husband’s last name, after eight years of marriage; that decision is what the essay focuses on, but this is the paragraph that I can’t stop thinking about:

When a child dies, too often people stop saying his name. Some people didn’t want to bring him up for fear it would remind me of his loss. But as with most bereaved parents, there is not a moment when I’m not aware. I feel the loss in my cells, even when I sleep. Saying my son’s name to me is one of the sweetest gifts anyone can give me. Phoenix Lind Anderson. It is the music of my heart.

It’s hard to know what to say to someone who’s suffered an unthinkably huge loss like this, and it can feel especially uncomfortable to bring up the name of the deceased. We think we’re doing it to protect our grieving friend, but maybe we’re also doing it to protect ourselves. It’s a way to side-step the potential messiness of the conversation that would follow, and we’d much rather stay over here, where it’s neat and clean and comfortable. “But life, lived fully, is messy,” Linda writes in another line that keeps echoing in my head. Anyway. I am lucky to know Phoenix Lind Anderson’s mom, and I can’t recommend the essay enough.