I always thought that going through a profound loss would make someone an expert on loss. I mean, we always work with what we know, right?
You would think after experiencing the death of my husband…I would be one of those people who knew what to say when someone else was going through something similar. That I would have some magical words of comfort. That I would finally know the secret handshake that gets you into the National Grievers Society and thereby bestows upon you everything you need to know about healing others. That I wouldn’t be as stupid as some of the people I have encountered during my meandering walk through the Grief Canyon.
Yup. You would think.
But because of the experience I’ve been through, it makes me more self-conscious than ever that I’m going to say the wrong thing. If there’s one thing I know by now it’s that what one person finds comforting will make another person want to smack you. So, most of the time, I just try and keep my trap shut.
Earlier this summer (Father’s Day weekend, to be exact), I got a double helping of grief. After jollying my kids through Father’s Day, I came home to a memorial service going on next door because my very sweet neighbor had passed away a few weeks earlier. He went into a doctor’s appointment on a Tuesday, was diagnosed with cancer, and by the next Tuesday he was gone.
We were all shocked, to say the least.
Anyway, I always think it’s important, when it comes to this sort of thing, to just show up. Growing up, my parents bestowed upon me the knowledge that nothing is more important at a funeral than a butt in every chair. Meaning: Even if you didn’t know the departed very well…show up. Fill the church. Crowd the house. Nothing makes us feel better than knowing that hundreds of people thought so much of our loved one that they decided to come over and pop open a beer with us.
I don’t know…that could be a Southern thing. There’s really nothing we like better than a good funeral. That’s where you usually find the best food.
Anyway, after my exhausting Father’s Day with the kids, I trudged over to my neighbor’s house for (hopefully) a quick glass of wine and what I had hoped would be a short, but meaningful hug. And in my attempt to keep my foot out of my mouth (so that I could drink more wine), I started asking my neighbor questions about how she and her husband met, how long they’d been married…you know general things like that.
And then something interesting happened.
My neighbor’s face suddenly lit up (as much as it can when you’re fighting against the rip-tide of grief) as she told me their story. She talked on and on about meeting him in college and how crazy and fun he was. She shared stories about raising their kids and talked about the relationships they had with everyone in the room. After awhile, she asked me to go with her to watch a slide show that someone had put together of their life. As I followed her into the living room, the most obvious thing hit me.
We all just want to tell our story. She just wanted to talk.
Not about his illness. Not about what had happened. But about the life they had built together. And about a person who would never be forgotten.
In everyone’s attempt to “say the right thing” in times of grief they’re ignoring a very simple fact that would save everyone a lot of aggravation.
They don’t have to talk at all.
They don’t have to worry about whether saying, “I’m sorry” is going to annoy someone. They shouldn’t even attempt to look at the bright side and say, “Well, at least he went quickly.” They shouldn’t make a pathetic stab at philosophy by saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” Or our FAVORITE: “He’s in a better place now.”
They just have to ask one simple question about the person who is gone. And listen.
I realized that the most healing time I had when my husband was gone, was just sitting around with friends while they asked me questions about us and our life together. Even in my darkest hour, I enjoyed strolling down Memory Lane with anyone who would take the time to listen. Don’t we all? I LOVE it when people ask me how I met my husband. I love it when they look at pictures of me in my younger and more attractive days and ask what we were doing then. I love it when they ask me if all of my kids were fathered by my husband.
(Yes, someone really asked me that question. And if you had ever seen my husband and my kids together in a picture, you would never wonder. They’re all little clones.)
To this day, when I’m feeling blue, I’ll call an old friend and we’ll talk about the kind of person my husband was and the crazy things he did. The story about how he and a buddy tied their trucks together and pulled to see which one was “stronger” (and the visit from the friendly local policeman afterwards) is usually enough to get me into a better mood.
This realization has been such an “ah ha” moment for me. That listening has more healing powers than saying something that you think is comforting while making the other person feel like they’d rather be walking barefoot on glass than listen to you. It’s probably something that everyone else has known for years, but I’m always a little behind on the grief learning curve. So the best thing you can do is smile politely, nod your head, and listen to me ramble about this latest lesson I’ve learned.
‘Cause it will just make me feel better.