Fresh Grief: How to Help When People are Grieving

The other night I got a text at 2:30 am.
"Jeff just passed away."
I couldn't believe it. I still can't. My friend Bridget -- the one who carried me through the worst work of dismantling our lives in Kauai, who has been there for me for nearly a decade of raising babies, nursing, potty training, parenting, homeschooling, working-- her husband Jeff died suddenly of the flu. He was a beautiful man. A hard and lean Portuguese Hawaiian Paniolo-- soft spoken, bright eyes, long white ponytail. Thick pidgin, soft voice, gentle with all the babies, gathering the children into his lap. How can he be gone? He wouldn't show up to a party, but he'd show up to build you a fence or move your house or brand your cattle. He'd work harder and longer than anybody. Life is a little surreal-- the last time I saw him was when he and Bridget had packed up my container with our whole battered dusty lives inside after my own crusty Hawaiian cowboy died, leaving his stunned and broken babies behind. The last thing I said to him, thinking of suicide, of alcoholism, of drugs--was "Don't you dare do this." Don't you dare die and hurt her like this. The universe had other plans. Life is crazy.

Her kids are little -- around the same age as mine-- and she has many many other kids who she claims as her own. She lives her whole life, 20 waking hours a day, working tirelessly, to serve other beings. She takes care of horses and cows and goats and chickens and pigs and dogs and lambs and rabbits. She takes care of nieces and sisters and cousins and nephews and babies and teenagers. She teaches Sunday school at the Episcopalian church and leads the Cub Scouts at the Catholic church, she manages the 4-H club and leads parenting classes and playgroups up and down the island. There is no END to what this woman does.

For this to happen to them, for his life to be cut short, for her to be so hurt, and her kids.... the universe is so cruel.

It's our hope and faith and optimism that allows us to BE the hope for other people. If there's goodness in the world, it's in the people who help each other.

Hearing my friend's terrible pain brought me back to that vivid moment-- those first weeks-- after my husband died. My baby was six months old. My milk dried up. She was drinking sand for a week. I couldn't eat. I tried to put food in my mouth. It tasted like old sink sponge. I'd spit it out into the garbage can, onto the dirt.

The grief would crash over me and then recede. Before a tsunami, the corals are exposed, the ocean-skin peeled back to reveal the naked bones of reef. And then it comes, a strafing wall of water, wrecking the world.

That was grief. Sometimes dry. No air, no taste, no tears, no sounds.

And other times I fell on the floor. Knees buckling with grief. Only lying belly-to-belly with mother earth eased it.

It's impossible. It's more pain than it's possible to survive. And yet you feel it and you still live. Your heart feels like it's going to stop from the pain of it. But it doesn't. Your body lives. It's impossible.

Bad things don't happen to strong people because they can handle it. Bad things happen, and then you HAVE to handle it. There's no other option. You have to keep breathing in. And out.

Witnessing my friend's grief makes me want to solve it, to salve it, to ease it. But it's hard to know how to do that. So I am casting my mind back to things that other people did that helped me.

Concrete offers: 
Saying, "can I bring you dinner tomorrow?" is better than "What can I do to help?" Just offer whatever you can really do or give. Never say, "let me know if there's anything I can do!" Never say those words again. Say, "I can buy you a new phone chord. I can vacuum your floor. I can pray for you. I can write you a check. I can take your kid for a haircut."

Easing decision fatigue: 
There are so many terrible decisions to be made--decisions only the bereaved person can make. What kind of service will we plan? What will I do with their things? What will I do for income? Will we be able to keep the house? How can I help the children? All of those decisions weigh heavily on their minds. Don't ask them to make any decisions that you could make yourself. Don't ask them what they want for dinner. Say, "Your sister says you like lasagna, so I'm bringing lasagna. Okay?" If they hate lasagna, they'll probably be able to tell you. Before you ask them a question, ask yourself if this is something you can have someone else solve, or solve yourself.

Cold hard cash:
Trauma is expensive. And when you are in the middle of terrible grief, jobs fall apart, health insurance stops (retroactively often!), life insurance falls through, income disappears, and an incredible stream of unexpected costs pop up. They will need lots of cash, for vital necessities. Also, maybe they want to feel normal and be able to go out for Thai food. Send cash to them.

Mundane tasks:
Do you know what is bloody impossible for some people when they're under the grief bus? Washing their dishes. Mopping the floor. Changing the oil in their car. Following up with the dentist appointment. Going to the post office. Taking out the trash. If there's something you can do, just go and do it, without judgment. Don't make them feel bad for having a mess, just say you understand, and clean it up. See a need, fill a need. They will want to kiss your feet. But don't make them.

Comfort In, Dump Out: 
This one is so important. It's based on this great article from the LA Times, "How Not to Say the Wrong Thing," April 7, 2013. Basically this means that the person at the center of the crisis gets to emotionally dump outwards onto anybody, and nobody gets to emotionally dump on them. You can dump on people further away from the loss than yourself, but not on people closer to the loss. Here's what I mean. I am not going to call my friend who's just lost her husband and cry about how upset I am for her and her family. Instead, I am going to listen to her cry and tell her I'm here for her. And then, because I am upset, I am going to call my sister, or some other friend who is further away from the loss than me, and I am going to cry to them about how sad the situation is.
Basically, don't ask the people hurt the worst to comfort you. You comfort them. You go cry elsewhere. Don't make them carry you.

Not centering your own experience also means, don't make this about yourself. Don't make it about your beliefs-- "You'll see him again in heaven!" or about your guilt, "You've got plenty of family, you must be getting the help you need!" Zip it. Stick with, "I'm so sorry, here's a check, I love you."

Grief makes people a jerk sometimes. Seriously. It makes it hard to be kind, hard to be selfless. When you are absorbed in your own pain, you are less able to empathize with other people's legitimate, but smaller problems. So don't take it personally if they don't call you back, or if they don't really care about your coworker drama at this moment. They will again, sometime, probably. Give them some grace in the thick of it. Tell them that you understand and give them an out. One of the kindest things people said to me was, "you don't have to respond to this. I don't need a thank you note. I understand and I am still here for you no matter what." They let me off the hook for social graces that were just too hard to manage in the darkest moments of grief. And then remember that grief doesn't actually end, it just changes. Loss doesn't get fixed. You don't get better. You just get used to it, and the shape of your life changes. The wound never heals-- death is an amputation. The edges might scar over, but the limb never grows back. So be patient. If you think they should be over it and they're not, just step back, be patient and supportive, and be glad you're not in their position.

Nobody knows what to say. There is no right thing to say. But silence is the wrong thing. Don't pretend nothing's wrong. Stay in touch. Don't disappear. If you are too sad to talk to them, if you are too scared about what happened to them and that it might happen to you, if you think you're not close enough to them to be of help, just put it all aside. Just say, "I'm sorry, I'm thinking of you." Some of the most unexpected people became daily supports to me when my husband died. Long-lost friends across the country texted me every day, sent me beautiful pictures, just told me they were thinking of me. I love those people. A lot of other people disappeared. Were they uncomfortable? Were they embarrassed? I don't really care. I needed them and they were silent. Don't be silent. Even if it's just, "I'm thinking of you. I hope this picture of my cat cheers you up," just do it.

And if any of you are in any position to help my friend Bridget, send her some cold hard cash at Paypal We can't fix it, but we might make it a little bit easier.


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