Dos and Don’ts in Times of Grief

I will never forget that gut-wrenching scream.

My husband’s family was close knit and well-loved. They were devout Christians, although not of the overly pious sort. They were fun-loving and hospitable. You always knew Dad was in the room because you could hear him laughing over the crowd. A deeply traditional and patriarchal old-fashioned family, the men worked hard and at the end of day they rested their tired feet and were served dinner by their wives. They camped together, the kids played ball, fished and rode motorcycles. Mom never seemed to sit down. she was always on the move, cooking, serving, cleaning up.

Dad and Mom married at 17 and 14. He was raised on the family ranch in Yakima the grandson of settlers who came up the Oregon Trail. Her family came from Minnesota, looking for work in the late 40s. Uncle Ted said when the boys saw her they all fell in love, she was the most beautiful woman they’d ever seen. Dad said her waist was so tiny that he could span it with his hands.

Young and in love

By 1985 all 5 of their kids were married off, and they were ready to enjoy their independence together. They were both doing volunteer work full-time and enjoying their grandkids. Then Dad got sick. Mom took him from doctor to doctor, but they all sent him home saying it was just a hiatal hernia, nothing to worry about. Definitely not cancer. But why was he so anemic? His hemoglobin was 2. Normal is 13 to 17.5. At that time it was hard to find a doctor who would do surgery without blood transfusions.

By this time he was losing weight drastically and walking doubled over from stomach pain. We had heard of a surgeon in Orange County, California who used an electrocautery knife to keep blood loss minimal. We tracked down his number. Yes, he would see dad. My Brother-in-law loaded Dad on the first plane they could get. Within a few hours off arriving in California Dad was whisked through a number of tests while those of us still at home waited by the phone. We talked in hushed voices, just waiting. The phone rang. No one wanted to answer it. Mom reached for the receiver, put it to her ear, murmured hello, and then just listened. Our hearts were in our throats, tears in our eyes, hoping beyond hope it was going to be ok.

And then came the scream. A soul ripping in two.

Mom,  my husband and his sister were on a plane the next day in to be by Dad’s side through the surgery. We had friends whose family took them in and gave them a place to crash. Dad’s liver was engorged with tumors, and his colon had a tumor the size of a grapefruit that was ready to burst. He would die within a week if it were not removed. The surgery was successful, but it was all too late. We had the precious gift of a few more months with him but then he was gone, leaving a gaping hole at the center of our family.

Dad was our glue. He was the one that held everything together, knew how to fix everything, made the arrangements for family trips. He was like a busy sheepdog keeping us all moving in one direction, nipping our heels when we lagged. Now we didn’t know quite how to hold it all together, and some of us ended up hurting each other in our grief.

I had only married into the family a couple of years before.  My mother was a feminist and I tended to be different from and far more vocal than the other women in the family. My sister-in-law’s grief spilled out in anger and I made a pretty good target for her pain, at the time. She said I had no right to grieve, that it was her father and I didn’t belong there.  That was a painful time, to put it mildly. I withheld my feelings in her presence. I pretty much withheld my presence from her presence and stayed away. The sad thing is that it wasn’t hard to do, because she withdrew as well. She didn’t attend Dad’s memorial because she didn’t want to see people or to cry in front of them. She didn’t get to see the huge crowds at Dad’s memorial dinner or hear the stories people told.

It is healing to feel the love of friends and family at such a time, even though you dread losing control. Our society teaches us not to cry, especially men. Don’t fall for it. Letting our feelings out in a healthy way helps us heal. Some people, though, aren’t comfortable with that. Is that wrong? No. It’s their way.  Mom was open in her grief, and would cry while going about her business.  I remember looking over at her and seeing tears running down her face as she kept going with her normal routine. She knew giving everything up and just staying home would serve no good purpose. She was truly a steel magnolia. Always a lady, but strong as spun steel. That was her way. I always felt that she was emotionally healthier because she allowed herself to feel.

And that’s the point of this story. How do you support your friends when they’re grieving, how do you console them at the worst of times? What do you do or not do and say? Sadly, we’re all going to go through it, and as you grow older it will happen more and more. It’s the worst part of growing up.

Don’t:

  1. Don’t tell people how to feel. Don’t say ‘you shouldn’t feel like that’ or tell someone that it’s time to get over it.
  2. Don’t tell people you know how they feel, especially if you haven’t been through exactly the same thing. Everyone has different dynamics in their life.
  3. Don’t ever tell someone that death was God’s will or ‘God took him’. He didn’t. Stuff happens sometimes for no good reason, so don’t make God the bad guy. It’s not comforting.
  4. Don’t avoid your friend because you don’t know what to say.
  5. Don’t rush them into getting rid of their loved ones’ things or push them into big life decisions that can’t be changed. As a matter of fact, it’s a bad idea to make any major life changes for a year after a death in the family.
  6. You don’t have to be positive all the time.  Don’t take it to the opposite extreme and be dramatic, either. Just go with the flow. It’s not about you, it’s about them.

Do:

  1. Be there. Just be there. Take the time to listen, even if you hear the same stories over and over.
  2. Continue to be there, even months later. Too often everyone is supportive for the first few days or weeks, but gradually the support goes away and the grieving person is left on their own.
  3. Be patient. ‘They might say things that are irrational or unfair because of their grief. Don’t take it deeply to heart. It’s the pain talking, not the person.
  4. Invite them out. Maybe not right away, and you may need to keep it simple and low-key, but you may need to be gently persistent in helping them get back into the swing of things. It’s easy to isolate yourself when you’re grieving. Friends that stick by you are important.
  5. See what needs to be done and do it. Be respectful, of course, but if you can see that they need their lawn mowed or there’s no food in the fridge, pitch in and help. Don’t wait to be asked. A lot of people say ‘If you need anything call me.’ A grieving person won’t do that. They don’t want to be a burden and asking for help is hard. Be a friend in deed.
  6. Send them notes, or a letter. That way when they are at their very lowest they can read it again, even if you’re not there.

Everyone’s grief is different, but everyone will sooner or later have grief.

Our friends are the most precious gifts we will ever have in this life. They get us through our hard times, and in turn we get them through theirs. Dad’s memorial dinner was catered and served by our friends, our kitchen was full of food and kind smiles. Our friends gave us a place to stay, ears to listen to our pain, arms that held us, shoulders to cry on. They told us it was ok to cry, and held us when we did. They listened to us rage at how unfair it all was, and helped us hang onto the hope that it would get better in time. We’ve been up and down in all these years but those friends are still with us, although some live on only in our hearts. We took our turn grieving with their families at their loss.

I hope my story helps you when your friends need you.  If you have something to add, please share. 🙂 What helped you get through?