|Pictures are all we have left. Pictures in albums and pictures in our hearts. This photo of the photos was taken at Dad's visitation, Monday, December 1, 2014|
Death is the negative image of birth. And as with birth, when death comes home it feels like it's never happened in the history the world until now. Though rationally you know that birth and death happen to millions every single day these events barely touch you. But when it happens to you it feels like the world has stopped turning--that the impossible has happened to you and your family alone.
As Mat Kearney sang, "we're all one phone call from our knees." For me those phone calls came on the mornings of November 5 and November 26 respectively. Mom reached me around 8:35 A.M. I was in the staff bathroom at the school, about to brush my teeth when I got the news that grandma was gone. Three weeks later, Barbara woke me up around 5:30 A.M. with the words that I'll never forget: "My dad died this morning." (My first response had been a comforting, certain "No, that's not true. That's not true." For next week or so my mind kept returning to that nightmarish moment and to the utter disbelief I felt. It's as if my mind had to replay that moment over and over until I could accept it's awful reality).
I never really knew what to do when dealing with death as it happened to the loved ones of friends and acquaintances. We spend so much of our lives running from death, convincing ourselves that we are somehow immune from it, that we often don't know how to deal with death, when it touches people we know and care for.
I don't feel qualified to expound on how to deal with death of someone close to you. I'm still figuring that out myself. And each death is different, with the circumstances, the amount of preparation one had for the death, the age of the person, and your unique with relationship all coloring each individual grief in it's own terrible way.
"What should I say?" and "What can I do to help" were two questions I always had when someone I knew had experienced a loss. While I don't know that I can answer those questions with absolute certainty, I can share what meant a lot to me.
What to say
"I never know what to say," is a common dilemma for those acquainted with someone who is grieving. And the truth is, even having going on through losses of my own, I still feel the same way. We want to make things better, and the honest truth is nothing that anyone can say can accomplish what we want most--to bring back the person we lost. We also don't want to make things worse. But again, the loss itself is far worse than any clumsy comments we might make. Nonetheless, in my experience there were words that were comforting and those that. . .well, let's just say they didn't help.
Often times it seems easier to just not say anything about a recent loss. It's awkward and fraught with the worry over saying the wrong thing. But ultimately pretending the loss didn't happen is really for the one's own benefit rather than for the benefit of the grieving person. If you can, share a memory or a positive impression about the person who died. I found I really treasured anything specific and non-generic people shared, even in a Facebook comment, about Grandma or Dad. But even if you draw a blank on something special to say about the deceased don't let that stop you from expressing sympathy. "I'm sorry for your loss" might be a cliche' but you really can't go wrong with it, and it is so much better than acting as if nothing happened.
Don't offer advice or explanations. Be careful about asking questions.
"Try to trust in God," "It was God's will", "Oh my God, how did he die?" These are all risky routes to go. Some might find solace in your counsel or perspective or find themselves eager to go over the painful details. Many won't. Instead, do let them know you care.
Don't presume you know the closeness of the relationship or the extent to which someone is mourning.
"Well, at least he was just your father-in-law." No-one ever said those exact words, but there were a few well meaning folks who suggested something along those lines, and it hurt. The official relationship between the mourning and the deceased doesn't necessarily tell you about how grief is being experienced. Policy at the office may determine what losses are "worthy" of bereavement leave, but we aren't bound by those restrictions. It's better to assume someone is mourning deeply and find out they weren't that close to the deceased after all, than the other way around.
Don't forget to check back in.
In some ways the hardest part comes after the funeral is over and everyone has moved on. The death of a loved one, at least in my experience so far is not something you "get over" but that you gradually learn to live with. We've been blessed by the people who were insightful enough to ask weeks and even months after Dad's passing how we're holding up. A simple, heartfelt "How are you doing" allows those that don't want to to talk about their grief an easy out: "I'm doing okay." But it also opens the door for those who have a deep need to share their grief. Just keep in mind that you might get the latter, so if you're going to ask, be prepared and willing to commit some time, a listening ear, and a sympathetic heart
How you can help
While it is important to say something to a grieving friend, and even the "I'm sorry for your loss" can be comforting, the other big cliche' "Let me know if there is anything I can do to help," can be dispensed with. No one is going to actually let you know, so it's better to offer to meet a specific need. Indeed if you are close to someone who has lost a loved one but you didn't know the loved one well enough to be deeply grieving yourself, you are in the perfect position to be a real help and genuine support. Here are two things that people did for us that really helped a lot and meant a lot.
Thanksgiving Day we ate hot dogs. No one felt like cooking a big feast just over 24 hours after we'd lost Dad, and we didn't much feel like eating fancy fixings either. But even after the holiday, we were busy planning the funeral, still taking in the shock of the sudden loss and we had neither the time or the inclination to cook. The soup, the fruit and vegetable plates that people brought really helped. After the visitation, my friend J and his wife Evelyn brought Chinese take-out over to the house and it hit the spot. What a blessing!
Help with the kids.
Joy Lacorte, as I've shared on this blog, was a lifesaver in the days immediately following Dad's passing. And when she left, J, Evelyn, and J's parents Dr. John and Grace Carlos stepped in to save the day. J and Evelyn took the boys out for supper and entertained them for a good portion of the visitation hours. Then on the day of funeral, they kept Ezra through the service since he was hollering and making a lot of general commotion, not understanding what was going on. My boss Brenda Arthurs gently took Elijah out when he started getting antsy near the end of the funeral service. These friends generous willingness to take on our kids allowed us the time and space we needed to say good bye and we'll always be grateful. If you can "take the kids" you can know that you are making a real and meaningful difference.
It's only been about five months since Dad died. I still look for him. It still seems like perhaps he's just gone away for a bit and will be back soon, as if he's just taking a really long nap (and I suppose in a sense both of those things are true). We're still in the early stages of living with a loss that will last our lifetimes or until Jesus comes. But I'm thankful for those that have stepped in to be support us as we mourn. And I have a renewed personal commitment to trying to support others in their time of grief as well.