Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Windows on Grief

I have sat down multiple times to begin this blog post and I do so now with fear and trepidation.  I have wanted to share with you my thoughts on what was helpful in my grief- but I have been anxious that those around me would feel this is a passive-aggressive way to give praise or penalty for those who loved us in our pain.  It is not.  It is merely a response to our journey.

While I have begun this in my head at various points over the last 3 years, it finally is being written now because of the horrible tragedy that has affected my community in the last week.  A precious 4 year old boy died tragically this weekend.  Loads of this family's friends are friends of mine- and several of them have asked "how should I help?"

Goodness knows I am no expert on what to do in moments like this.  Rather than rely merely on my own experience, I have been pooling responses from friends.  I've talked to several dear friends who have recently lost someone, as well as I've asked those in my Grief Class at Sawtooth.  In these words you will find the collective experiences of those who have lost parents, friends, spouses, and children.  We cry tears together and lean on each other because the wound is quite raw.  So while I tread in to dangerous waters of offering "advice" on how to love someone in pain, know that I come to you humbly- bringing words from my friends as well.
the view from our classroom

Across the board, we were able to laugh at some of the things that people attempted to do to "help" that were far from helpful.  Yet as a whole, we all know that people come to you in those first terrifying moments just as scared as you are.  No one knows what to do- including the bereaved- and so we bump against each other in our hurt hoping to provide some peace along the way.  One thing that we shared in our class was remembering the statements people made in those first few days that could be remained unsaid: "I can't imagine losing my husband."  "I'll hug my babies extra tight tonight."  While we should love people with our empathy, we should speak to them with our sympathy.  Your friend did lose her husband.  She won't be able to hug her baby tonight.  Speaking those words- while thought to be comforting or showing your connectedness to the moment- aren't always helpful.

In fact, there was a great article around this same subject that was recently making the Facebook rounds.  We should chose what we speak to those in grief/crisis carefully, and this article lays out well the hows and the whys.

When talking to my friends, it was nearly universal of the same things we didn't want to hear: "It's okay."  "It's going to be alright."  "It's part of God's plan."  While those statements are so very well intentioned, they are unfortunately painful in the moment.  Most grievers know those statements are merely bandaids for their situation.  They will have to learn a new reality- and while it will involve God's plan, it's quite painful to think of Him as wrecking their life in the moment to get there.  (Note: one friend even went as far to say "don't push your belief system on someone who is grieving.  While you may be sure that adding your Truth to their hearts in this moment of pain, it may do nothing but push them farther away.)  When it comes to "well then what should I say?"-- keep it simple.  "I'm so sorry" is genuine, heartfelt, and doesn't try to "fix" an unfixable situation.  Never feel like you are responsible for "explaining" the unexplainable.  Having no words and just hugs is completely appropriate.  And hard as it may be, try to avoid the phrase "I understand."  While you may have had a similar experience, their moment of grief and their situation is their own.  You will likely not understand.  "I'm sorry" and "I love you" are enough.

What about bringing things by the griever's house?  Absolutely, if they are accepting visitors.  (Don't know?  Ask around.  While you may not be able to reach them in the time of crisis, ask someone on a closer "ring" than you are what you should do.)  Across the board, though, most people on the receiving end of grief mentioned that they loved gestures of love from friends, but requested that people drop of the gift, meal, card, or hug and then promptly leave.  While it seems that sometimes we suffer from this bizarre desire to get near the bereaved, we should not jockey for face-time with them in their moment of pain.  One friend commented "if you were not having regular lunch dates or coffee dates with them prior to the event, don't try to start now."  So true.   One thing to consider while dropping things by: don't give the grieving friend more work to do.  While I was so blessed with a bush to plant at the loss of our last baby (and look daily at my laurel with joy), another friend was given a tree that became a job in her early moments of grief.  Make sure you know their desires well enough to bring something by that requires more work.  And keep in mind the "nature" of the grief.  A friend said to me that while she enjoyed cards and meals at the death of her grandfather, that when her father committed suicide- cards weren't what she needed.  While it is more work on our end as friends, it's more helpful to evaluate the gesture through the lens of the recipient.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the bereaved should feel in charge of the situation as much as possible.  You don't need to play Dr. Phil to get your friend to talk- allow them to invite you in to their grief.  (And LISTEN!  Don't make it a grief competition or use their story to springboard to another horror story that you heard or read on Facebook.  Be present with your friend- while they may be unable to talk in the moment, being with them in silence is just as precious.)  Allow them to take the lead.  Hard as it may be, don't try to assume that what you would want is what they do.  Last summer when a friend died, his wife asked us to remove his clothes from their shared dresser before she and her kids returned home.  Months later when we lost our baby, a beautifully well-intentioned friend removed my baby "items" from our line of sight before we returned home.  And I lost my mind.  While it was exactly what my friend needed to begin her never-ending job of finding her new normal, it was the exact opposite of what I needed.  Those mementos of a child never coming to live in my house were all I had to hang on to the reality that I, indeed, lost a family member- and didn't just experience a medical anomaly.  Allow the bereaved to tell you what they want, and try not to make any executive decisions on their behalf unless you've asked.

After my fabulous experience this summer in several grief groups, I feel like I could go on and on about what I've learned about others' experiences with grief.  Instead I'll direct you to several resources and leave you with some action steps.

Read these:
Farther Along: The Writing Journey of Thirteen Bereaved Mothers
     I've had the honor of meeting one of these mothers this summer in my class.  This book contains writings from women who have lost children, as well as writing prompts in the back.  Also included in the back is a list called "I want to help."  One of the most helpful points for me was the line "It's never too late."  I've found myself going back now to friends who lost loved ones in my former, grief-free life and saying "I'm sorry.  I didn't respond in the way you may have needed."  I've gone back and told stories of loved ones who have died to their remaining family members.  It's never too late.

A Force of Will: The Reshaping of Faith in a Year of Grief by Mike Stavlund
     I met Mike at Wild Goose.  His book is a collection of his writings dealing with the death of his son.  It has given me tons of practical reflection on how losing a child is in a field of it's own, just as the women in Farther Along share.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
     Joan put into words some of the pain in my heart.  She talks about the fog of grief and how you believe "magical" things about the death of your loved one.  While it's a hard read, as are the others, it's beneficial to have first hand accounts of grief to reflect upon as you wade through your own or try to love a friend in their own moments.

Some practical "action steps":
*Meals are great.  Keep in mind that mass quantities aren't always helpful because those grieving aren't always able to eat.  However, if there is family in town, helping to feed all of them is a huge relief for everyone.  Make sure you know dietary preferences- one friend received amazing chicken and beef casseroles... and she was vegetarian.  When bringing food, drop it off quickly.

*It's lovely to think of any children in the home.  Elizabeth got some spot-on craft supplies which helped not only to make her feel loved, but to help busy her in moments of overwhelming grown-up stuff.

*Don't say "let me know how I can help"... figure out something to do and then gently execute it.  A text message saying "I'd love to take your child to the park.  Is Friday or Saturday better for you?" is much easier to respond to than trying to think of how you need help.  Because in all honestly, your grieving friend doesn't likely know how they need help.

*Keep calling and texting your friend even when you don't get response.  I read through some old messages the other day and found this beautiful exchange:

I'm not ok. :/ thanks for continuing to call, even though I've not been able to pick up yet. Love you.
Totally understand. Just know I'm thinking about you. Love you

When it comes down to it, caring for those who are grieving is a yucky, tricky road.  It's painful for all involved.  My summer of delving through my own experience has shown me just how different each experience can be.  But know this, dear friend... your gesture is appreciated.  One friend who I'd asked about her journey shared these words with me:

photos courtesy of Amanda Sullivan
I have realized the best thing from my perspective is to be grateful for what anyone does, since no one has to do anything and I know too well how busy life alone can be.  I truly can say no one has really done the "wrong thing" in trying to help me personally, because anyone who has tried has done so out of love.  So maybe the only advice to those wanting to help someone who is hurting is to do so only if you truly feel led, and if you are truly doing it for the other person - not for yourself or out of obligation.

Wise words.  On behalf of those receiving your love and compassion, thank you.

1 comment:

Kay Windsor said...

Sometimes there are just no words, and we have to respond with our actions. We all have probably said awkward or inappropriate things to others who are grieving, but your gentle suggestions will help us all to be more mindful of how we help those around us who are grieving. Thank you for giving sorrow words for us, Becky.