A Sentence No Parent Should Ever Hear

A woman from the hospital asked me if I had any friends or family that they could call for me. I shook my head yes. They asked me for the number. I handed them my phone and pointed to my parents in the contact list.
01/22/2014 09:47 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

I was in the hospital with my fiancᅢᄅe when she died.

When somebody dies, there are calling circles that need to be activated. My first call would have been to her parents, but we had called them from the ambulance a few minutes earlier. They were already racing to the hospital to see their daughter. As far as they knew, she was still alive. They would have to find out what had happened when they arrived. There's some news you can't tell people while they're driving.

I wasn't physically able to make a phone call anyway, since I was still lying on the emergency room floor hyperventilating. A woman from the hospital asked me if I had any friends or family that they could call for me. I shook my head yes. They asked me for the number. I handed them my phone and pointed to my parents in the contact list.

My family never told me about what they went through that night, but you can probably guess what happened. Think of it from their perspective and try to imagine what it must be like to receive a phone call like that...

The phone rings. There is a stranger on the other end of the line and they say they are calling from the hospital. They say the name of your child, and they ask you if you are the parent of your child, and you say "yes" even as you are thinking, "no, no not my child, please god no."

And then they say the most emotionally complex sentence you have ever heard.

It begins with the phrase "Your child is okay," which is wonderful because for the two or three seconds before they said the word "okay" you had been thinking that your child was dead. And with that phrase, your child is resurrected, and for a moment god has answered your prayers, but you are a parent and the woman from the hospital is on the phone, so your mind quickly crushes the relief by writing dozens of different endings to that sentence: Your child is okay, but he was in an accident. But he was shot. But there was a fire. But he's unconscious. But we're bringing him into surgery. The word "okay" is always followed by a "but" when you get an unexpected call from the hospital.

Before the phone rang, you were happy. Then you were horrified, then elated, then scared again, and the sentence isn't over yet.

"You're child is okay," they say, "but I have some bad news for you..." and you imagine your child maimed, burned, bleeding, comatose, crippled for life, calling out to you for help that you can't give because you are miles away and the person at the other end of the phone knows they need to tell you quickly, so they haven't even paused, but you find the time to think all of this between their words anyway.

And then they say somebody else's name and you are caught off guard. They say the name of somebody who your child loved. Somebody who you loved, too. And now you are praying again, but this time there is no "okay," there are only the words you feared endless seconds ago,"... passed away."

And then the sentence is over.

Everything is over.

It took me far too long to muster up an ounce of human decency and imagine what it must have felt like for my family. It was probably my mom who answered the phone. She would have screamed when she heard the news. My dad would have come running from another room, and my god he would have seen her crying, and then my god she had to tell him, she had to open her mouth and say the words even when she didn't understand them. They are in pain, my god they are in pain, because this hurts them, and it hurts them directly, but they are somehow going to ask the woman on the phone to tell them where I am. And my god, they are going to want to protect me, and my god it's going to torment them that they can't, but my god they are going to get me on the phone anyway in spite of all of this to tell me that they love me and to tell me that they are getting in the car and that they are coming, they are coming, they are coming, they are telling my brother, and they are all coming three hours to be with me now.

Later that night back in the hospital, when I could breath enough to speak again, I fumbled for my phone and began the long process of letting people know that she had died. She was extremely popular and loved by a sprawling and complex network of friends. There were so many calls to be made, each one setting off a new shock wave.