Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Helping Others: Should I Pat, Hug, Feed or Pour?

Grief makes me feel stupid.

And if you're thinking, "Nothing can make you feel stupid without your consent" - I'm going to have to argue with you this time.  I'm not letting it make me feel stupid.  It just does.

I know that I'm not the only one who goes through this.  Anyone who has experienced a significant loss has gotten this line before:  "Since you've been through this before, you'll be the perfect person to talk to about it."

And sometimes I think that the fact that I've been through this before makes me the worst person to talk to about it.

Before this happened, I would have been like most of the world, trying to commiserate with the person who has had their life ripped out from underneath them, saying the wrong thing with good intentions, and dropping off a casserole right after the death, when the fridge is full and no one can eat anyway.

But since I've been through what would be considered a "significant loss," it actually makes me much less helpful.  I don't know what to say because I know that something I personally found comforting might make you want to smack me.  I don't know if I should bring food because I remember how exhausting just accepting help from others actually was.  I don't know if I should hug or pat, feed or pour.

The funny thing is that I think most people who have gone through a significant loss don't always want to talk to someone who has been through the same thing and the people who haven't been through it always assume they do. What we really want is to talk to someone who can sympathize with us, but not make our grief their own.  We want someone who will cry with us and not say, "I know how you're feeling because when my husband died..." because we don't want to hear about when your husband died right after we've lost our own.
We know that we're not the first person to go through something like this.  But we all feel like we are in the beginning.

This is why so many of us need that perfect combination of peer support and counseling:  The peer support to make us not feel so crazy and the counseling just to have someone nod and actively listen while we bawl ourselves dry and then walk away from the office, head pounding but feeling just a little lighter.

The worst part about me now is that I'm so damn practical about death, mainly because asking you about benefits and advising you on what paperwork needs to be filed right away and what offices need to be called is a tangible thing.  It's something I can do and it's concrete.

Dealing with emotions after loss sometimes feels like quicksand.  And I'm always worried that the more I try to help you, the more you'll sink.  That's probably not something that a lot of people understand.  But it's still a fear of mine.

Since I'm not entirely sure how to handle your raw emotions because there is a very good chance that they're different from my own, I'll skip right over that and ask if you've thought of what comes next, what kind of plans have been made, and make sure that you're hydrated.  I'll sigh with you over paperwork that should have been done, benefits that should have been purchased, and the fact that no one is actually EVER prepared for what comes next.

I hate that this has all made me so cold and I know that it's for the simple reason that I can't stand to think of what's about to happen - the pain, the tears, the frustration, and the long slow climb out of a very dark hole.  If I put my mind to it, I actually probably could say the right thing and be very helpful.  But in order for me to do that, I'd have to put myself back in that place.

And that scares the shit out of me.

So, for now I'll keep patting.  I'll keep hugging, feeding, and pouring.  But most of all, I'll keep listening.

Because really...that's the best thing I can offer anyway.

Widow Chick (aka, Catherine Tidd) is the owner of and the author of the upcoming memoir Confessions of a Mediocre Widow (Jan. 2014).  She is also a writer for The Denver Post's Mile High Mamas and a contributor to several books on grief and renewal.

1 comment:

  1. I ever hear what you are saying! I am surviving the loss of child. The things people say to me annoy me to no end and I don't have a clue what to say to people in difficult situations. And I spent a lot of years as a chaplain in the children's hospital. I try not to think of how many people I annoyed at horrible times.
    Thank you for speaking truth!