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  • Writer's pictureValérie Besanceney

A Series of Lessons from FIGT 2016 – Lesson 4/4: We Bond Where We Are Broken

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

The internet can be a scary thing, especially when advertising is ‘knowingly’ targeted to your interests. While browsing through my Facebook feed a few years ago, my eye fell on an advertisement for Global Mom: Eight countries, Sixteen Addresses, Five Languages, One Family. Admittedly, this unsettling type of advertising provided me a genuine connection leading to a true friendship teaching me humble lessons on grief.

I was a relatively new mom to two little girls, who were already part of the global tribe by birth. Global Mom seemed like a book I would enjoy, so I clicked on the link that serendipitously led me to my first bought kindle book.

Tears of laughter ran down my face from Melissa’s description of the Barnepark in Norway. Reading about the TCK experience from a parent’s point of view gave me a window of empathy into my own parents’ experience raising a child in cultures different from their own. The tears of laughter continued, between touching passages about the familiar challenges that families face when moving around the globe.

Then, the tears of laughter turned into tears of another kind. I thought about calling them tears of compassion but that is not fitting enough. I cannot quite find a name for them yet. They are the tears that fill the rivers of the land of grief and loss, a country that Melissa so poignantly describes as a land of its own.

Suddenly, I felt an urge to know much more about this author, this mother, this woman who was making me laugh and cry heavily with her words. So I flipped back and read the Acknowledgements. When reading the final words on the page “Prangins, Switzerland, 2013”, my jaw must have visibly dropped. Global Mom lived next door! Well, not literally, but twenty minutes away is next door in my world.

By way of Facebook (it only seemed appropriate), I wrote her and asked her if there was any chance we could meet, anticipating she and her family had possibly already moved again. She promptly replied with a kind note informing me she was not only still a neighbor, but also a mother at the school where I worked. From thereon a friendship blossomed.

A few sacred times, we walked and talked around the lake of Divonne while Melissa pushed our oldest daughter in the stroller and I carried our baby, cradled in a scarf, on my tummy. Through intimate stories we truly connected with each other. Yet, I admit that I was scared to ask her about Parker. After all, we only just met.

She reminded me to treasure these moments when our children are so young, as experienced mothers often do, but also insisted that it gets better and better, as experienced mothers often forget to mention.

Finding myself in awe of someone who had experienced the most heart-wrenching of losses, yet still managed to be so inspiring, positive, and genuine, I was unsure about how to broach the topic of her loss. The intense loss of which she so candidly writes, but which I wasn’t able to frankly ask about. So I told her I admired her for being able to write about it so well.

What I really wanted to say, and should have said, was: please, tell me more about Parker.

From my own losses, I know that talking about the person or thing or place, you feel truly heard when someone simply asks. There are no words that ever heal a loss, but talking about it does help a little. Once, as I drove off from one of our walks, I asked myself why it seemed so incredibly hard to ask that question.

Finally, it had to be Melissa who answered my question, albeit it a couple of years later at FIGT 2016.

When I found out Melissa would be the closing keynote speaker at FIGT 2016, I knew that most of us would walk out of that room forever changed. Melissa has the incredible ability to impress an audience with her words and energy as much in real life as on paper. I had seen her present twice before, and to say she is captivating is an understatement. Luckily, my kind neighbor at the keynote had heard her speak before as well. She remembered to bring the tissues.

Melissa first told us about the challenges that come with bringing up four children in eight different countries and in five languages. There were consistent bursts of laughter from the audience as she entertained us about unintended yet familiar linguistic and cultural faux pas. She showed us pictures of her stunning Norwegian table that travels with them everywhere they go and of her gorgeous, smiling, rosy-cheeked children on different continents.

She led us through their journey, and we began to love the characters she spoke of (all over again if you had already read her book). As she described “the landscapes, the imprints and lessons learned from the passages they travel,” you could identify with some of them yet also feel like their experience was truly exceptional. Her slides took you from place to place, from memory to memory.

Then, when you almost believed their story was literally ‘picture perfect’, she compassionately invited you to the land of loss. Compassionately, because she knows exactly how “petrifying it can be to tread onto someone’s sacred territory.” The answer to my question.

Through her words of wisdom, you wish she never had to learn, she held her listeners’ hands while the tears didn’t stop flowing. Because we all know loss and it is “where we are broken that we bond.”

Melissa continued to tell how “no landscape and no passage has taught us more than the passage ––the ultimate passage––from life to death of our firstborn, Parker”. She then helped her audience, and continued to answer my question, by shedding light on how to help those who are grieving, also beautifully described in her second book, On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them.

She emphasized the importance of providing a community. She encouraged you to show up. Even if it is just to sit with someone who is grieving. She asked you to listen. Just to listen. To not patch up grief with proverbs.

If you are unsure how to listen, she encouraged you to comfort with your strengths. “Bring what you have,” she said. You cook, cook them a meal. You paint, paint them a picture. You write, write them a letter. You knit, knit them a scarf. You do patchwork, make them a quilt. You sing, sing them a song. You clean, clean their house. You are good with kids, take care of their kids. You are good at something. You are. Share it.

She reminded you to inform key people. As a teacher, I couldn’t agree more when Melissa said “let teachers know if children are entering with a tragedy at their heels.” With adults, we can assume that every person has their own stories of grief, but with children we all hope, and often assume, they have been shielded from grief because of their age. We should never assume that. It helps us connect with them better, and possibly help them, when we are informed.

Also, remember that when you help someone heal, you will suffer your own grief and need your own comfort. Most importantly, she reminded you to stay committed. “All grief will outlast conventional comfort. It just never ends, my friends. Never. But then, neither does life.”

A mother loses her child, ends up helping countless individuals and families through their own grief, and eventually extends her kindness and provides hope to refugees in the sixth country her family moves to. It is people like Melissa that inspire me and bring hope.

Today, as I browse the internet, I cannot begin to comprehend the tragedies that seem to greet us daily now. As I browse my Facebook feed, supposedly a community of ‘friends’, it scares and saddens me how divisive people are becoming, even in the face of grief. And it leaves me to question what happens to grief when we don’t bond where we are broken?

This week President Obama pointed out “That’s always the hardest thing I do as president, trying to comfort a family who has just lost somebody. You had some white children who had lost their father. You had Latino children who had lost their father. You have African American families who have lost their fathers. And I can tell you the grief is the same. The loss is the same.”

We need empathy to connect in grief. The world certainly has too much grief, and there seems to be a shortage of empathy. The quote Chris referred to on the first day of FIGT 2016 comes back to mind. “Ultimately, our gift to the world is hope. Not blind hope that pretends everything is fine and refuses to acknowledge how things are. But the kind of hope that comes from staring pain and suffering right in the eyes and refusing to believe that this is all there is” (Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell, 2005).

So, when watching the news of this divided world in which empathy seems frighteningly hard to come by, I refuse to believe that this is all there is. In the horror of the tragedy of the day, a baby is cared for and returned to its parents in the middle of a terrorist attack. A woman unapologetically, but with intense, peaceful poise, stands up for what she believes in. People continue to speak their mind against the mindless rhetoric.

The lessons learned on grief from Melissa’s closing keynote bring me full circle to Chris’s opening keynote on empathy and hope. My hope is that we may all continue to bond where we are broken, and that empathy will continue to grow and triumph.

Thank you both, and thank you to all the speakers and attendees of FIGT 2016, for helping me understand a little better on how to bring ‘Empathy and Expertise to the Evolving Global Family’.

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