About six months after Shawn died, I stood up at a staff meeting. It was the end of school, and we were gathered for staff week, trying to encourage each other as we ended the school year. It was a school year that I had mostly missed, both because I was out on leave and because once I returned, I was emotionally not always there even when I had been physically present. I was limping towards the finish line.
“I want to say thank you,” I said. “When I came back after Shawn died, so many of you supported me. So many of you came up to me in the office or the staff room or the hallway and gave me your condolences. You hugged me or put your hand on my shoulder and I felt your support. And the kids saw that, too. When they saw you show me love, they learned how to act towards someone who is grieving. That’s such a gift you gave me, and it’s such a gift you gave the students. Thank you.”
Lots of people gave me warm smiles, and a few people said kind words to me as I sat down. I felt really supported.
The next day, I arrived at work to a letter on my desk. I don’t still have that letter, so I’m paraphrasing here, but inside was a note from a fellow teacher. She was not a teacher I knew well, but we’d worked together for almost a decade at that point. “I’m so sorry I didn’t say anything when your husband died,” she wrote, “I felt so sad for you, but I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t say anything. I wish I had said something. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
I found her later, and told her not to worry. Whether or not she said something back then, I really appreciated that she said it now. She looked relieved.
I thought about this a lot afterwards. I imagined what it must have been like for her, week after week, to see me in the hallways and not know what to say. She was a kind woman, and I didn’t think that she was trying to be rude or mean. I know we’re all just doing our best.
But it takes a lot to say, “I’m sorry,” when it’s been a long time. Yes, maybe she should have said something early on – we were colleagues with classrooms right next to each other – but she didn’t. And then a week went by and then another week and then a month and another month. She likely felt bad every single time she passed me in the hallway.
It would have been easier, at that point, to just let my grief fade, and to ignore the situation. But she didn’t. Instead, she did the much harder thing, and confronted her misstep. She said, “I’m so sorry.”
It’s not easy to say “I’m sorry for your loss” when someone you know is grieving. But if you miss that window, it gets harder with each passing day. I know. I’ve done it! I’ve missed the window and then thought, “it’s too late to give my condolences, isn’t it? By saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ when it’s been a number or months, I’m also saying, ‘I messed up.'”
And that’s a really hard thing to admit.
But it’s never too late to say, “I’m sorry.” This is true if you’ve hurt someone’s feelings, but it’s also true if you haven’t acknowledged a loss or some other grief that a friend or a colleague or a neighbor has experienced. So what if it’s been a year since your neighbor lost her brother? You can still slip a note under the mat of her front door, and say in it, “I’m so sorry for your loss. I should have said this earlier, but I didn’t. I’m sorry for that, but mostly, I’m sorry that you’ve been grieving this year. I want you to know I’ve been thinking of you, even if I wasn’t brave enough to say it.”
See? It’s so easy! (And yes, if you’re in this boat, feel free to copy this phrasing exactly. I don’t need any credit! Pass it off as your own.)
I know that in reality, it’s not easy. And yet, of all the people who ever gave me their condolences, this woman is one of the few that sticks out in my mind. I remember that she had the guts to say, “I messed up” and also she had the compassion to still reach out, even if it made her feel uncomfortable to do it.
And to this day, when I see her in the hallway, I always ask how she is. And she always asks how I am. Funny that it took this misstep to draw us closer together.
Here’s what I think we’ve both learned: It’s never too late to say “I’m sorry.”