I didn’t know what to write about this week.Well, that’s not entirely true…I did know what to write about, but I didn’t WANT to write about it. So I went into avoidance mode and started grasping for replacement topics. I inspected my surroundings for clues: “This is a nice pen. Maybe I could write about pens.”
So what topic could be so difficult that I contemplate writing an entire blog on a Pilot Easy Touch Retractable Ball Point?
Not death…death is different. Death is tangible. Death is inevitable. Death is final.
But grief…grief is mysterious, peculiar, and all too often, silent. Awkward. Taboo.
Last weekend we traveled down to Virginia to visit my cousin Megan, her husband David, and their two small children. Megan’s mother, my Aunt Terry, died of cancer in October.
“Morgan has gotten so big!” I said. “I haven’t seen her since your mom’s……”
“My mom’s service?” Megan gracefully supplied the word that suddenly escaped me.
“Yes.” I said gratefully. “Since your mom’s service.”
Once I got over that initial paralysis, I relaxed. We immediately found our groove and had a great weekend together. Megan had opened the door and I entered.
But why did I need the invitation? I was stunned by my own initial awkwardness. Before I had Phoebe, I spent three years volunteering at Peter’s Place in Radnor, a center for grieving children. I should know the drill..right?
But there is nothing formulaic about grief; what if what I had learned from working with children did not apply here? When in the company of a grieving person, I think many of us experience those moments of panic and uncertainty: ”Is this going to upset her? What if she doesn’t want to talk about it? Am I in her space? Should I let her come to me?”
Much has been written about what NOT to say: Clichéd lectures about time healing all wounds, the mystery of life, or anything involving God’s will are definite no-no’s. So what DO you say? To get an informed opinion on this question, I called my friend Mary, who lost her mom a year ago in March. She graciously shared some pearls of wisdom on how to help a grieving friend:
Show up and shut up: So what DO you say? According to Mary, “It doesn’t really matter what anyone says…so you don’t really need to say anything. There have been times when it really feels like I will never feel happy again. [In those moments] it just feels good to have someone call or show up; to just know that someone gives a shit.” Follow her lead. While processing feelings is good, so is sitting on the couch side by side, eating Lucky Charms and watching 4 hours of Planet Earth.
Help them remember, not forget: While you may think it is helpful to distract the grieving person, quite the opposite is true. Mary says: “If you don’t grieve, you don’t feel as close to the person.”
I clearly remember this from my volunteer work at Peter’s Place. I facilitated support groups for children (ages 9-11) who had lost a parent. Some of a kid’s most terrifying moments occurred when his memories began to fade: the sound of his mother’s voice, her laugh, how she made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the fruity smell of her hair when it was still wet from the shower. One family confessed to still having the mother’s voice on the answering machine greeting, despite the fact that the message said “Merry Christmas”…in June. Peter’s Place created a safe space for them to remember. As a friend, you can do the same by listening to them talk about the person, and maybe even sharing some of your own favorite memories.
Just Do It: Don’t ask what you can do to help; just do something to help. In her series of blogs entitled “How to Help a Grieving Friend,” Molly Piper shares a story about her friends “surprise” cleaning her house while she was out, complete with fresh flowers and a prepared meal in the fridge. The gesture need not be so grand – the idea is to take the initiative. If you are taking your kids to the park, call and ask if her kids want to come along.
I struggled with this at first because I worried about “boundaries.” Yeah, f**k the boundaries. Obviously exercise common sense in terms of privacy, but asking “what can I do” makes the person feel like suddenly they need to make YOU feel comfortable. Mary joked, “I would never, ever ask someone to mop my kitchen floor….I mean, have you seen my kitchen floor??”
Don’t Be Weird: Don’t disappear, but also resist the urge to make your friend a personal project. “Be sincere”, Mary says. One of the biggest issues for the kids at Peter’s Place was being treated differently. Friends either ignored them or treated them like mental patients. This made them feel even more isolated and alone. Be a grounding force and familiar face. I think of it as turning up the volume on your friendship. Act the way you normally would, just with a higher degree of awareness and sensitivity. And maybe don’t talk as much. Let her do that.
“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” I always remember this line from Steel Magnolias because I think laughter has amazing healing powers. For Mary, some of the best therapy has been going out for a (few) glasses of wine with friends and having a few laughs. Again, be sincere. If you weren’t funny before, don’t suddenly try to channel Rodney Dangerfield. But if in the past (before the death) you would have texted your friend the message “OMG, I just ate a burrito and now my gas smells like the Barnegat Bay at low tide,” don’t hesitate from sending it now.
You might think, “Oh she doesn’t need to hear me prattle on about meaningless shit”. When really, that might be exactly what she needs. She needs you to be yourself, so she can feel comfortable being HERSELF. Smelly gas and all.