Chris Livingston, Orlando photographer

The methodology of consolation

I stood next to his body with my hand on the back of a woman I’d only met once before. I didn’t even know her first name. I just knew her as his mother.

There’s no way to do that right. It’s impossible to properly console a mother who is crying over the loss of her son, her only child, her best friend. Crying’s not the right word. This was a complete and utter loss of all emotional faculties. Up and down my hand went on her back. A constant rhythm. That’s all I could think of. Up and down. Up and down.

Trying to give her privacy, I stared intently at the cabinet against the wall, filled with medical supplies. In the glass, I caught the reflection of his face, waxy and still. I heard her talk to him, telling him who she notified and how his son will be fine and how she’ll be strong because she knows he would want her to be. And I heard her deny it over and over again, repeating the word no with a low staccato beat. Her face buried in the blue sheet that covered him, she moaned, a low guttural sound that echoed in my head. Up and down. Up and down.

I noticed that one of the cabinet doors was slightly ajar and contemplated walking over to close it. The more I stared, the more it bothered me. Why didn’t somebody close that fucking door? The rest of them are closed and how hard is it to close. one. door? And the sheets? Why were the sheets wrinkled? Hadn’t anyone thought that the sheets should be nice and neat? Without thinking, I reached out to straighten the sheet in front of me. My hand touched his covered body. It was very solid and felt cool to the touch. And it felt wrong. So wrong.

Suddenly, I was ready to leave. If it wasn’t for my hand on the back of this woman I didn’t know, moving up and down, while she said goodbye to her son, a friend, I would have been gone. Instead, I breathed and looked him in the face and listened to her words. I felt her love and her grief and her pain and her misery as if it were my very own.

And I stood silently and like a statue, if not for the arm moving up and down, up and down, until she was done saying goodbye to her only son.

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62 Replies to “The methodology of consolation”

  1. Karen

    You stayed because of her and immersed yourself in a moment that would have otherwise passed you by. Your recantation of the story had me there too. I’m profoundly moved. Thank you for that, and I’m sorry.

  2. leel

    wow. im so sorry for your loss. Im also thankful for people, men, like you. there is no doubt in my mind that his mother will forever be thankful for your presence and love in that moment. sometimes, its the hand of someone we dont know well rubbing our backs that get us through the worst moments of our lives. know thats what you did. and thanks for sharing it with us.

  3. Finn

    There is nothing else you could have done short of bringing him back for her. You were there, giving a little of your strength so she could get through the first part of this horrible journey she’s on.

    And I could see myself in what you wrote. I’d have been looking everywhere but at the body and that cabinet door would have made me insane but provided a blessed distraction from what was really going on.

    I am sorry for your loss. And hers.

  4. CP

    When I lost my son 14 years ago, I remember a nurses aide coming into the room as I held him. She did exactly what you did; stroked my back as I held my boy for the last time. And, although I wasn’t aware of the gesture at the time, years later, that healing touch would resonate with me. I never knew her name. Never saw her again. But in those final moments, she helped me to heal.

    There is nothing in the world more isolating than the loss of your child. You feel alone, disconnected. No longer part of the human process. You gave that mother a tremendous gift by simply touching her and allowing her to feel human contact in her moment of grief and despair.

    When her pain subsides, many years from now, she will remember that someone was standing alongside her, simply allowing her to be.

  5. Lisa

    Adam, this was so beautiful – both what you wrote and what you did. My heart goes out to you and Amy, and to the family of your friend. That mother is probably very thankful for your presence, that she didn’t have to be alone for one of the worst moments of her life. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  6. Jay

    The people I remember most from the days after my dad died are the ones that I didn’t really know and didn’t have to be there, but they were. Being willing to do the right thing when you don’t really have to and could avoid it is a sign of a good person.

  7. Fantastagirl

    It doesn’t matter that you don’t “know” her. What mattered? In this great time of need, you were there. At a time when most don’t know what to do, you stepped up, and did what needed to be done.

    I’m sorry for your loss, and her loss. (A mother should never have to bury a child, it’s just not right.)

    Hugs to you.

  8. Michelle Carter

    A friend referred me to your blog and I have been reading and laughing, but this one caught me by surprise.
    A week ago, we lost my 4 yr old nephew to something called Tay Sachs disease and what you described here… the up and down motion …. that damned open cabinet…. you could have been describing me. Smoothing out the sheet…. wanting to slam the cabinet shut…. whatever… just somehow have some sort of control in an uncontrollable environment.
    So, ignore my ramblings… I want to say thanks for writing this for me to stumble upon.

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