I have been here in Indiana for over a week. My days have been quiet, but they are about to get much busier, with family and friends taking time off work in preparation for Thanksgiving. My social calendar, which, to this point, has been fairly empty, will soon be filled with scheduled meet ups and events.
I am not sure I'm ready. I find it difficult to spend time with people, even those who know me well. Regular conversation feels pointless. It is hard to make chit-chat. I can only pretend to be light and happy for so long before I need to retreat, somewhere, in search of a bit of space.
I have spent most of my time, here, with my brother and his two little dogs. These dogs were his constant companions when he was sick three years ago, on several litres of oxygen, and unable to walk beyond a few steps, having waited almost a year for a lung transplant.
He received that transplant on his 60th birthday. Best present, ever, the gift of life.
My brother’s son died 10 years ago, at the age of 23, so he knows a bit about this thing called grief. Christopher was a sensitive young soul who lived life to the extreme. He didn’t get to find his way through his pain or to grow out of his risky behaviour. He died before he could grow up. Our family has weathered many tragedies, but Chris’ death was, by far, the worst.
People surrounded my brother and his children at the funeral and for a few weeks afterward. Then, before long, the rest of us went back to our daily lives. I felt sad, when I thought of him, but I didn’t reach out to my brother or my niece and nephew, often. I had my own son, who was experimenting with risk, himself, and I was so afraid that it could happen to him. I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t say anything at all. I left them on their own to deal with the emptiness and grief.
It is strange, this living with loss. Our world has shifted on its axle, throwing everything into question, but others return to their routines and move through their days as if nothing has changed. Fortunately I have people around me who are not afraid to speak my husband’s name. They miss him, too. They recognise that five months is nothing at all in this long journey, and they allow me the time and space to grieve.
Others, though, want to avoid the subject when we meet. They ask how I am but don’t wait for the answer. They seem uncomfortable with sorrow. They deliver aphorisms of positivity and hope. Their words imply that I should smile and move on from these messy waters. They want to feel better when they look at me. They want things tidied up.
Some avoid me altogether. People I once counted as my closest friends. Some family members, too, have neglected to send me even an email of condolence.
We become pariahs. We are the harbingers of the bad news that this could happen. They could lose their partners at a moment’s notice. Their children could die. They could be plugging along, with plans and dreams, when the whole earth shifts. They could watch their husbands collapse in front of them. They could get that dreaded phone call in the middle of the night.
Who wants to come face to face with that? It makes sense that we, and the reality we represent, would be avoided at all cost.
So I forgive them, and their human frailties. I was once one of those, who avoided death, who met the pain of someone’s grief with silence. It’s not that I didn’t care. It’s that I didn’t know. It’s that I was afraid.
The loss of my love has given me an empathy that I didn’t have before. From this day forward, I vow that:
*When I see someone who has experienced a loss, I will move toward her, rather than away from her.
*I will sit with him and let him cry. I will not offer a tissue, a pat on the back, or a hug, when he is in the midst of it. I will just let him grieve.
*I will share a memory of her loved one with her.
*I will encourage her to share her own.
*I will not wait for him to tell me what he needs. I will offer something practical instead—a lift, a cooked meal, a meet up for a coffee.
*I will respect her need for space and quiet, and not take it personal if she does not return my calls.
*I will check in, by phone or text, to let him know he is in my thoughts.
*I will not tell her to be grateful for what she had, or that her loved one is in a better place, or to be strong for others. That is the last thing she needs.
*I will remember his special dates—birthdays, anniversaries, date of the death, and make a point of acknowledging it.
I will use my presence to remind them they are not alone.