How Do We Take Care of Ourselves and Each Other When Someone We Love Dies?
The death of someone we love can affect us in ways we do not expect. This can be even more surprising because the feelings can come weeks or months after the death. We can seem fine for an extended period of time, and then, out of nowhere, we are crying in our car or at the grocery store.
The feelings generated by grief are often deeply felt and formidable, whether they come immediately or after a period of time. We can be shaken hard by feelings we may not be familiar with. Also, this can bring us back to experiences of loss we have had in the past. These memories may be quite distant, but suddenly they feel very fresh and can be exceptionally painful.
Our job, if the grief is ours or someone close to us, is to allow for the range of unexpected strong feelings that arise. It is not our job to distract or talk ourselves or someone else out of what is being felt. Because they are feelings, they may not make a great deal of sense. Sometimes, this is a hard thing for us to accept. We pride ourselves on being rational and able to understand and think through what happens in our life. Generally, this is not the case with the death of a loved one. When someone we love dies, we miss them and can be rocked to our very foundation. No amount of rationalization or understanding answers the pain we feel. Only comfort, acceptance and presence can ease this experience.
We feel this pain due to the loss of love. This pain is an experience that takes over the body. We love from within; our entire being experiences this profound sense of loss.
These feelings can be so strong a person can think they are losing their sanity. This is natural because of the tremendous unexpected pain of grief. We are called upon to be able, as best we can, to tolerate our feelings or the feelings of those we love that are in grief. It is helpful to remember that these feelings will not stay the way they are now. The memory of the one who has died will never go away. But the feelings a person has during this difficult period of grief will eventually ease and change. Our job is to allow for the tears, the anger, the loneliness and any other feelings that arise.
Remaining gentle and present through the course of grief will allow us to move toward healing and a sense of wholeness again. This should not be a fast process and trying to get through this these feelings quickly is not helpful in grief. Everyone handles grief differently, in their own time and own way.
October brings with it the season of autumn. By autumn we have had our fill of the flowers, fruit and abundance of summer. Autumn begins the course of nature fading into winter. This is the earth’s enactment of the cycle of loss and rebirth. Where we live we are fortunate to have the promise of spring, but we cannot have it without the reality of winter.
This enactment of nature gives us a way of seeing the loss we experience in our lives. To truly look at our lives is to see that loss is with us all the time. The experience we have of growth or any kind of achievement, necessarily includes within it the experience of loss. When we graduate from high school or college, the accomplishment is celebrated with joy and recognition. We have achieved something that we have worked for, and with that achievement is the reality that a portion of our life is over and is gone. We can revisit, we may even make it a part of our lives in some way, but we can never return to being that person or having that experience again. We continuously grow and change.
This is true for every level of development we see in others or live through ourselves. The child that can now walk on their own, can sit at the table with parents and siblings, does not return to the joy of the highchair and all its delightful messes. When a young professional becomes competent and is recognized in their work, they become responsible for the role they have attained. The wild times they enjoyed on the way there may not be as appropriate or perhaps even available now.
Looked at in this way, loss is a necessary part of growth, learning and fulfilling our dreams. One illustration of this is in our appreciation for the people we look to as wise. Wisdom tends to come with age and experience. We expect people we consider knowledgeable and wise to be there for us and for others with this kind of mature presence. Their achievement provides something important for us and for others. We do not expect them to behave with irresponsibility and frivolity. They are seen as people holding wisdom and truth they have earned over years. Much had to be let go of to achieve this position in the world.
This provides us with a frame to see loss as a teacher and as a path to what we long for in life. It is possible for us to look at our experience of loss as the opportunities for understanding what means the most in life. Also, for us to connect how these meaningful people, events and connections we have and those we lose, shows us who we are on the deepest of levels. It is the exploration into the feeling and meaning of everyday loss that has the potential to enrich and enliven the life we live. It is very often in the hospice organizations that a significant number of volunteers are people who have experienced the loss of someone they loved and been drawn to the importance and depth of what happened when hospice came and worked with their loved one. This is an example of seeing and feeling the depth and meaning of the experience of loss and looking to follow its teaching and its path.
Keywords: autumn, spring, loss, growth, wisdom, development
How do we speak to someone in grief? This is of great importance to the groups I led of bereaved people at Saint Barnabas. Comments and responses people made about death often caused greater pain and discomfort than reassurance or care. The group members were clear this was not done on purpose. None of the interchanges they referred to had the least amount of ill intent. However, what was being said to them often had the opposite effect of what was intended.
We realize people who have lost someone they loved are in some way attempting to make sense of their lives again. Our lives are built upon those we love. When they are taken from us by death we can become unsure. We can be unsure of who we are and of what has meaning in life. This can be a very difficult time.
So what do people need to hear from us when someone they loved has died? Often times, as strange as it may seem, they do not need to hear anything at all. They need to feel our presence and our support. The offer of a dinner together, a walk in a park or a ride to a nephew or niece’s softball game. Support and presence means a lot. What might actually be asked of you is to not speak of the death or maybe of anything at all. The reassurance can come from the quiet of someone willing to be with them without a need to do anything.
For others it will be different. Some people will want to talk through what it feels like to not have the deceased there. They will want to say how painful those last days were or how much they miss the deceased when they are at the grocery store or at the dinner table.
The difficult part for people in grief is we can’t know ahead of time whether they want to talk about things or not. Here is the even harder part: they may not know themselves until they try. That is the thing about grief. For those who are lucky, it is new ground that is really completely unfamiliar.
So what do we say? We can ask them how they are holding up. Following that question is the important moment of really listening. If a conversation of how their life is going follows, then staying with them, interested without any advice is what is called for. After it really feels like they are done with everything they have to say (which might be: “okay”), we can make the offer to be of help. It is usually good to be specific. If you love gardening, ask to pull weeds with them or plant or prune. If you love the kitchen, ask if you could drop off one of those quiches you have been baking. If you are a mechanic, ask to help on that carburetor or change the oil on their old classic.
Here is what we not say:
This happened for a reason
They’re in a better place
This is what I did when my (…) died
How are you handling the…?
How long has it been? It’s time you…
Being there for someone when they are in the pain of grief can be difficult for us and for them. But it is always worth it. They will remember those who showed up for them at this most important of times. The experience of grief is almost always lonely. Our presence is one of the greatest gifts one can hope for.
Keywords: grief, pain, death