As many of you know, my dad passed away when I was a kid. This is not the kind of thing people like to talk about while standing in line at Subway or getting their hair done. It's a heavy conversation. Often stumbled into, accidentally brought up. And once we're there, things can get difficult and awkward.
You see, people don't really know what to say when you tell them that your dad (or anyone else near and dear) died. I've heard many responses.
How old were you?
Wow, that's really tough.
That must have been really hard.
All these responses are understandable. Sometimes they come out as knee-jerk reactions. Sometimes people ask for too much detail (what am I, an episode of Dateline?). Some people don't know what to say at all. Either way, it can be very difficult to navigate.
(If you've been there, here's a tip for how to respond when someone says "I'm sorry." Just say "thank you." I know that makes no sense, but for some reason it's the right thing to say.)
But one time, when I was about 16, I had an interaction that was delightfully different. All because someone asked an entirely different question. I was at a youth conference, talking with one of the presenters. He thought he knew my parents.
Presenter: What are your parents names?
Me: Uh. Christine Stryker.
Presenter: What about your dad?
Me: He's actually passed away.
Presenter: Well, what was his name?
This guy wasn't asking my dad's name out of compassion -- he legit was trying to figure out if he knew my parents. But it was the first time anyone had asked me that. And I loved it.
The trouble with talking to someone about a family member that passed away is -- you've never met the person who died. It's like a big block that sits between you and whoever you're talking to. They have a strong connection to someone you'll never meet. That's why I was so relieved when, instead of saying "I'm sorry" or asking me how old I was when he died, this guy asked me my dad's name. Suddenly the focus wasn't on me and my sad situation, it was on my dad. We weren't talking about me anymore. We were talking about him. How cool is that?
Ever since that happened, I've used this question when entering this territory with my friends. On a date once, my friend told me that his dad had passed away. "What was his name?" I asked.
He smiled. Actually smiled. "George."