The more I learn and understand about the grieving process, the more I also clearly see how deeply our culture is uninformed about it and how horribly damaging it can be to some of us already damaged by the loss itself. So be forewarned: this post is a bit of a rant.
I can’t remember ever in my life being taught anything about death other than the undercurrent of panic and fear of dying. We are not taught how to grieve, what feelings can be expected, or how to treat those who are grieving. It’s too bad, and kind of weird, because death happens all the time, everywhere, to everyone. The sad fact is, we have to figure it out ourselves by going through it. We have to search for counseling or support because for some reason our western culture likes to brush it all under the rug. To give a firm, fake smile and a quick pat on the shoulder as if to say, there, there now, everything is fine, get over it already, no one likes a sad mopey. We’d all like to go back to pretending death doesn’t happen, thank you.
So when we find ourselves suddenly members of this most terrible club we don’t quite know where to turn. After the initial brief days or, if you’re lucky, couple of weeks, during which family and friends come together to mourn with you, well, that’s it. Yes thankfully there are exceptions to this, but it has been my experience that for too many people it’s closer to, We’re all going back to our lives so you should too. And when you don’t, you either never hear from them again, or get: what’s wrong with you? You must be not right in the head. You must need medication. You must not understand that we have determined that the time for grieving is over and it’s time to put our blinders on again and paste on the smiles.
And then these uninformed morons either completely ignore you (because who wants a sad widow at a party?) or somewhat ignore you (sure come to the party but don’t you dare mention your dead husband) or even, shockingly, spout some kind of stern lecture about how you are not doing it right. I can’t even believe some people have the gall to do this sort of thing, but they do. Sometimes they try to compare losing your life partner to some other experience of their own. Yes a divorce can be awful. Yes that injury was painful. I get it. We all have our things. But you can’t use that shit to try and tell us we should be over it or don’t have a right to grieve in our own time - and you can’t tell me it’s really comparable. If someone you shared your life and home with hasn’t died you have no idea what you are talking about.
Just because we are participating in the world, just because we are going to work each day, just because we might even have a new relationship or enjoy ourselves at social gatherings does NOT mean we are “over it.” That our grief and sadness is still present should not surprise you. And we have a right to talk about our missing halves. We have a right to say, when asked how we’re doing, that we are feeling sad or missing them, and shouldn’t have to feel guilty about being honest. We have the right to cry and should not have to hide it. We don’t have the obligation to play all nicey-nice to the fake cheery world out there. We shouldn’t have to lie about our grief just to avoid making you feel uncomfortable or awkward. And if you are the kind of person who gets upset when we are sad, or avoids us just in case we might be, then you are no friend at all.
We widows and widowers know by now that we each have our own different timetables and ways to process the loss, which is an ongoing journey no matter how long it’s been. But others out there don’t know how it works. So I’m going to explain it clearly. We ALL are STILL GRIEVING AND ALWAYS WILL. It doesn’t mean we will be crying 24/7. But it means we will have bad moments. It means there are triggers and memories that hurt our hearts. It means sometimes we will be overwhelmed with loneliness even if we are not alone in the room. It means the pain of our loss has left a scar that will ride with us forever.
One day (and this is not a curse, but just a simple fact), unless you die first, it WILL happen to you…unfortunately it seems like this is the bottom line. Unless you are a very good grief therapist you probably will not really get it until then. Because there are no classes on bereavement in high school. Marriage does not require a seminar on what to do if your spouse dies. There are no flyers passed out when we are born that explain what happens when we die or how we will feel when our loved ones go before us. There are no lists of “what not to say” passed out at funerals either. (Maybe there should be.)
That said - there is good information on grief out there for those who make a point of looking for it. So I’m not going to go into all that again here. But I will give one simple piece of advice I learned from my own experience and felt should be put into words somewhere. Maybe some other widowed people out there might be able to use it one day to help the morons along a little.
If someone close to you is sad; if someone you care for is breaking down and clearly having a terrible time of it, just be there. Spare a little of your precious time, please. Hug us. Sit with us. Listen to us. Don’t lecture or try to change the subject to something cheery and unrelated. Don’t say lame open-ended things like let me know if you need anything or you know he is always with you. So many of us are dealing with this alone; just so alone - you may not understand our grief, but you can’t fix it. What we really need is a compassionate friend. We need support in our grief, not guilt for feeling it. So you can agree that it totally sucks. It sucks really, really bad. It’s awful and devastating and I’m so sorry and then hug us again and tell us you love us. And then do it again, and again, and again, until the sobs recede a little. Talk about our lost loved one. Ask questions about them, ask for stories, what we remember. If you knew them, tell some memories of your own. Tell us you understand how life will never be the same without them.
Just be there. It may not be easy (or fun), but it is simple, even though so few people ever take the time. So f***ing busy with their own lives and obsessed with their self-importance and misinformed sense of authority and denial and fake smiles and so strangely uncomfortable with someone else’s feelings.
It’s so sad. So sad that we damaged souls often suffer needless further damage in this often unfeeling and superficial culture. I feel so deeply sorry about it all.