In an essay I penned on a similar topic a few years ago, I likened the non linear, displaced feeling that is so often an experience of grief, to something I know well; surfing a wave.
The recent death of a good friends father, and the well considered, often achingly poignant prose it has generated from her have been on my mind a lot as of late. And while it is always difficult to see a friend go through that kind of a loss, a large chunk of the reflection her loss inspired has been around my own recent, as well as not so recent, experiences of death and the resultant grief that accompanies it. Or, in those times when the loss is not our own, how do we best respond to someone in grief without compounding what they are going through? I know I felt at a loss when responding to and communicating with my friend. Would my intent be clear and my method helpful, or would I say the wrong thing that just served to add another complicated layer to the slush she is already trudging through. Because, even though this is a topic that, for better or for worse, I have become increasingly well versed in, it can be a decidedly different experience when offering that needed support to someone else.
So, a word about intention. The following are my own random and somewhat disjointed considerations on the rituals of grieving and supporting those who grieve. They are in no way are meant as a how to guide on grief, loss, or death. Instead, they are ideas and insights garnered from having walked the path a few times. Ultimately, I think the best approach for anyone that may be unsure, is one that stems from sincerity, errs on the side of respectful, and understands the timeless value of less is more.
A Personal Glimpse
Losing my own father this past August was only the most recent event in a disturbingly lengthy death tally of people close to me. In 2007, my partner of 7 years died unexpectedly after a brief illness, the suicide of a close friend followed less than a year after. My mother who had waged a lengthy, and, for the most part successful battle with cancer, passed away in the fall of 2010 after a brief but aggressive recurrence. Being an only child, and having had an exceptionally close relationship with Mom for most of my life, her loss was both brutal and ill prepared for. While working through that process, making some headway, I was faced with the impossible decision of having to end my 14 year old dogs suffering. The take away from those events? That a sense of being profoundly untethered, connected to no one was becoming a familiar mainstay in my life, yet still with an awkward fit. Then, not two years later, my father had a serious stroke with a subsequent rapid decline, culminating in his death this past August.
After five losses in what seemed like rapid succession, I would have ranked as one of the most highly skilled avoidance and deflection experts around. But even that skill set couldn’t halt the inevitable realizations over what death and its effects had meant for me. Today, almost seven months later, those are the things I am still working through. What have I learned? That breathing and patience help, a lot. That rigid expectations are both largely unhelpful and unnecessary, as they usually involve others needs, yet rarely our own. There has also been a growing awareness, and perhaps a slower growing acceptance, that we can’t, nor are we meant to, do this shit alone. What that suggestion ultimately looks like varies, but it does mean that asking for help will sometimes be required. That will never be an easy fit for me, but I’m actively pushing the comfort limits on it.
I’ve also learned, and become absolutely certain of the fact that responses to grief, above all, are highly individual. In other words, fuck the pre determined templates of appropriate grief. And short of going ragingly postal, seriously abusing substances, or directly and intentionally harming ourselves or those close to us, the responses each of us will manifest to loss are most often normal, healthy, and required. Above all, they need to be taken at their own pace.
Sometimes therapy and / or medication can and does help. Once again, that is such an individual decision based on a host of factors no one but the person going through it can evaluate. I know for myself, a Type A with control issues, therapy has always been a tough sell, and although psychotropic meds are a hard line no for me, for some, they are a required key to a door through which they find a sense of normality. I have utilized therapy on a situational basis, as a type of check in to make sure I am responding appropriately (whatever that is). It’s only been lately that I have tentatively stepped into a more sustained type of analysis. Jungian dream therapy, to be specific. I mention that here to underscore the fact that even those who are usually considered the go to person in a crisis, can often be overwhelmed, and in need of some help. The dangerous part with people like myself, is that often no one else will recognize the need. We cover well.
I know that it is often a bad cliche, but something else I realized going through my experience of multiple loss, is that the little things really do matter. Often, those small gestures form much of the glue that cements our ability to get through what we never believed we could. Trust me, taking the time and offering a supportive thought seems like a small thing, but I can say with assurance, it is never forgotten. Letting another know you care and appreciate their current fuckedupedness, and will be there if you need them, can sometimes be the lifeline that’s needed.
The ironic element here, is that when offering support, human beings can and do fuck it up in some gloriously cringe inducing ways. Not knowing what to say is expected, and it’s okay. Because really, what is there to say beyond a sincere expression of sorrow and / or support. We often try in vain, searching endlessly for that one inspirational, yet poorly constructed Hallmark quote that we assume will be the magic balm. However there is no magic balm, and there never will be, and attempts that suggest otherwise are usually cheesy, annoying, insensitive, and amusingly tone deaf. Platitudes such as “she’s gone to a better place”, “he’s with the angels now”, or describing the rain as God’s tears, not only require a heck of a lot of assumptions, their authoritative sentiment is not appreciated by anyone. The key here is less is more.
Assumptions and stereotypes are another easy avenue to having ones foot firmly lodged in ones mouth. When my partner died of liver failure secondary to an allergic reaction from a hospital drug error, having to deal with more than one well meaning comment at the funeral, akin to something like, “What a sad, tragic disease. It’s taken so many of our best, most creative men. I hope they find a cure soon.”
The assumption underlying that statement couldn’t be more clear. To which I responded, snark in high gear, “Yes, AIDS is certainly a tragic disease, one that I’ve lost more than my share of friends to. David however, died of medical incompetence. Sorry to break your narrative, but we “creative” types do occasionally die of other things.” I’m guessing I don’t need to indicate the lengthy and uncomfortable silence that generated.
I’m sure some will disagree, but polite and respectful does not require a rocket science manual. There is never anything wrong with simple and to the point. I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say, Is there anything I can do, Please call if you need anything, Do you need help with x, y, or z are all honest, gentle to hear, and are often action based.
In considering this theme of death, etiquette around loss, etc. I found myself pondering the historical contributions writers have made in this area. As a writer I have often looked to personal narrative and the documented experience of others for knowledge and insight. What I realized early on was that some of the most “inspirational” and popular quotes on grief, loss, and death, are frequently overly sentimental and trite, many venturing into cliche. At worst, there is no shortage of barely coherent soundbites chalk full of hokey, sentimental bullshit, the themes of which are often untrue.
A Few Choice Examples
This seems like an obviously well intended little ditty, however it comes complete with a sweetness that is almost diabetic inducing, simply through reading it.
If tears could build a stairway,
And memories a lane,
I’d walk right on up there to Heaven
And bring your blissful self home again.
You know, the more I read that, the more it sounds like some twangy country song belted out by a big haired blond, complete with perma smile and Wranglers.
Then there is this rather schizophrenic little piece of repetitive, strangely cadenced, poorly constructed word vomit. Safe to say, it was not a quote I enjoyed. And am I the only one who picked up on the hint of lyrics from The Sound Of Music in the first and last lines?
Good-night! good-night! so long and farewell, as we so oft have said beneath this roof at garden of midnight, in the days we played.
That are no more, and shall no more return, and will never come again. Though the lamp is dead and gone to bed;
I stay a little longer, as one of those that stays to cover up the embers that still burn, after the sun has gone to bed, and so must they. Goodbye, goodbye.
Whoever it was that told that idiot they could write, really needs to be shot.
Speaking of word vomit, I’m calling this one lost in translation. A hopscotch of manic, unrelated ideas, it speaks to its own merit so exactingly, there is nothing left to be said.
Loss, like love and rape, is a big deal. Common thought is that it is worth it? Maybe the more important question is how they all cause pain. Especially when death is violent.
A Few Of The Better Ones
Thankfully though, not all of my discoveries were that pathetic. Since every so often there was a gem or two to be found. An unanticipated phrase, poignantly framed. Maybe a unique idea, one that has yet to be considered, or perhaps it’s that richly poetic verse, the truth of which is so resounding, it lays us out flat. It can be as simple as…
Man, when he does not grieve, hardly exists.
Or, as lyrically poetic as this insightful offering from good old Bill himself…
Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.
The quote below has long been a favourite. And in one of those uniquely coincidental experiences, it turned out to be the last gift I received from my mother; framed in antique letterpress, it hangs on the wall above my desk.
Life is not measured by the amount of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.
A quote from a master storyteller, the talented John Irving …
“In the end, it’s the details and simple offerings, however small or inconsequential that matter the most.”
I know I have used this example before, but it has to be one of the best and most spot on portrayals of grief I have ever seen. In a scene from the movie Rabbit Hole, there is a beautifully understated moment between Dianne Wiest and Nicole Kidman. Kidman’s character has recently lost her toddler son in a tragic car accident. Both women are silently doing laundry and packing up the Kidman’s sons belongings. Still wracked with obvious grief she asks her mother, who also lost a son years prior, if the pain of losing someone ever goes away.
I know I’ve found that to be a strangely accurate description of what my own grief has become, over time.
Finally, one of the most beautiful examples of quotable insight came to me in the form of a reader comment on my personal blog in September of 2007, after my partner David died. A fellow blogger, Birdie, was a wise, intuitive woman who eventually became a good friend. Her own death this past year had me revisit her words below. They are words I will never forget, both for the exacting truth they impart, and the genuine concern they reflect.
“…when grief hits, mourn deeply and thoroughly, in your own way, as long as it takes. But allow and celebrate the glimpses of joy that come with it. If the loss was great, expect the winds of memory to bring it back. So mourn again. Celebrate once more. With time, it will become easier but it will never truly end.”
So very true.