Have you noticed how most people find it difficult to support a grieving person? They don't know what to say and often avoid the subject of loss altogether.
I, on the other hand, find it a relief to be able to talk about my grief. Maybe you do too.
It’s been nearly six years since my husband died — the anniversary of his death is a few months away. Lately, I’ve been more emotional than usual. I’m not sure why.
In these past few years, I've learned that grief ebbs and flows. I can’t tell you what brought on my most recent sorrow, except to say that I felt hollow. Empty.
But whenever I bring up the topic, everyone gets uncomfortable. Their eyes dart about and they shift their body weight from one foot to another. Once I move on to something else, they seem relieved to have our conversation back on safer subjects.
My friends and family seem to do a bit better on social media. Maybe they find it easier to type a short note of sympathy. I think writing gives them time to craft a supportive response, and the internet offers comfortable distance from the subject matter. When words don’t work, there's always an emoji or two to convey our sympathies.
Offering support in person is much more difficult.
We like to pretend death won't happen to us
Everthing related to death and dying seems to scare many of us. Most of the time we avoid thinking about the inevitability of it as if denying its existence affords us some protection.
Maybe it’s because grappling with the possibility of death forces us to face our fears of the unknown. Is there an afterlife? Such questions challenge the strength of our beliefs. Or, it reminds us we have none.
The death of our loved ones also brings up fears of loss.
I remember the first time I held my newborn baby. A beautiful, yet overwhelming love threatened to consume me. Terror quickly replaced it as I realized with each milestone he achieved brought him one step closer to leaving home — leaving me.
Death is the ultimate separation. I began to wonder how will I survive if something should happen to him.
To cope most of us prefer to believe that bad things don’t and won’t happen, and certainly not to us. We pretend tragedy affects other people way over there in some faraway distant time zone, and death only occurs to those of us who have enjoyed a long life. And, we don't want to disturb our peace of mind with the messy details of a recent loss.
Unfortunately, life doesn't work that way. Death will touch all of us at some point. I know this first hand.
How My Husband and I Faced His Death
My husband, Brad, learned he was dying on December 27, 2014. We chalked up his odd vomiting to the flu. Surely, that was all that it was — a nuisance that would go away, only it didn’t. Instead, the symptoms got worse.
A mid-morning weekend visit from the doctor changed the course of my life. He walked in, and in a matter-of-fact tone, told Brad that a small intestinal cancer tumor blocked his gut. After breaking this terrible news, the doctor looked him square in the face and said, “I’m sorry.”
I knew what that meant. My husband was dying.
We would later learn this was a rare cancer with no known treatment — an orphan disease that attacked only five thousand Americans a year.
Over the next five months, Brad and I faced his death sentence head-on. With an unflinching glare. We began to prepare for what would come next. We discussed my work plans, where I’d live, and how to talk to the kids.
And then it happened. Brad died in his sleep. Quietly.
Ten days earlier, he had moved to hospice inpatient medical care to manage his pain and the worst of the symptoms. On the day of his death, I left the facility a different person. A widow. Single. On my own for the first time in my adulthood.
Once widowed, people began to avoid me
But more than that changed; I also lost my social standing. Gone was the familiar comfort of hanging out with friends. In its place was feelings of embarrassment. People became tongue-tied in my presence. Or, I would see looks of pity and relief cross their face. That odd mixture of awkwardness and gratefulness, as they thought, “Thank God, it’s her and not me.”
Then I would hear a familiar phrase, with a tone I would come to hate, as they asked, “How are you?” spoken in a long, drawn-out way.
It wasn’t a serious question, but rather a way to break the ice. Besides, what was I supposed to say? A lie? “Fine,” when the obvious answer was, “Not well."
Avoidance became my cop-out solution as I stopped attending church and hanging out with friends. Outside of the occasional pity lunches, they stopped contacting me as well.
We need to accept the messy process of grief
As a psychologist, I was familiar with the five stages of grief outlined in On Death and Dying. Kubler-Ross discovered we move through periods of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. The stages’ tidy appearance suggests adjusting to death and loss occurs in a stepwise fashion from the first to last phase. It gives mourning a semblance of predictability. As if we can measure and predict the flow and speed of grief. “Ah, she’s bargaining right now, that means she’s gonna pull away depressed next,” the watching world might say.
That's not how it works. In fact, I have wanted to throw grief expert, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s book into the nearest trash bin.
Of course, when it doesn’t proceed so orderly, it’s easy to assume the grieving person’s isn't doing it the right way. We like to think that that person must need therapy or is having trouble letting go of the past. We blame them for disturbing us with the painful process.
Grief doesn't follow the rules
The truth is grief doesn’t behave nicely; it’s messy and likes to color outside the lines. It lasts too long and overstays it welcome. There’s no reasonable timeline, such as one year. Whoever thought up that idea should be slapped for its pure silliness.
No, grief doesn’t obey any rules. It surges and swells, only to retreat. Then it hits again, catching everyone off-guard. Take my most recent crying jag. It was unruly and demanding.
It’s been nearly six years since Brad’s passing. I know there’s no fix to this pain. But I shouldn’t have to ask for permission either. Those of us grieving need the emotional space to miss our loved ones. To hurt where and when we need to without judgment.
Grief has its own timing
Don't let anyone rush your grief. Grieving is a process that has no clear ending. We can never arrive. We don’t dare. Especially if it means forgetting the ones we've lost, which is unthinkable.
What those of us grieving need is the support of others while we mourn. And with time, our unbearable pain will shrink into something more tolerable, like a dull ache.