How to Support Loved Ones in Grief

ImageGrief: an experience that many of us don’t know what to do with or how to react to when we come in contact with it. Before my recent experiences with grief, I really didn’t have much of an idea of how to support others in grief. I had my therapeutic training, but that only goes so far and doesn’t always translate to being there for loved ones. It seems to me that in Western culture, at least in the U.S., we are so far removed from the concept of death that we become extremely uncomfortable when it touches us. For this reason, I wasn’t surprised when many of those close to me had no idea how to support me in my grief after the loss of my mother. For those that did give me support that worked, I was pleasantly surprised. For those that didn’t, I mostly understood.

Below I have compiled a few pieces of advice for those close to someone grieving. These are things that did and didn’t work for me while I was (and continue to be) marching down the grief highway. They may or may not be true for others!

  • Do call and check in regularly. Ask if I need anything, including practical things like food or childcare. Keep calling after the loss happens. Keep checking in and offering help, regardless of whether or not I call you back. Don’t expect me to call you back. Hearing your voice and knowing you are here for me is worth so much, even if I don’t respond to you.
  • Don’t say you “can’t imagine” what I am going through. I know I’ve been guilty of saying this to people before I experienced major loss in my life. Having now been on the receiving end of this one, I can see it really doesn’t help. For me, when I heard this, I felt isolated and separate, as if I was going through it alone.
  • Do express to me your understanding that death is a natural and normal part of life. A friend of mine simply said about my experience, “We are all going to experience that.” Even though he hasn’t experienced it yet, and maybe can’t imagine it, I felt his solidarity with my experience. I felt supported.
  • Do share your grief stories with me. This has been one of the most valuable forms of support to me. Seeing other people who have come out the other side of grief helps immensely.
  • Don’t pay me unexpected visits. Give me space to be in my cave. Call if you want to visit, and wait for my response.
  • Do show up for me, especially if you are a close friend. I was really dismayed that a person I had considered one of my closest friends barely acknowledged the loss I experienced, and simply did not show up. I even confronted her about it. She promptly apologized, explained herself, and then continued to not show up. I was especially disappointed because she is one of the few people I know close to my age who has lost a parent, and she is someone I have felt very comfortable with in expressing these difficult emotions in the past. I can only guess that she either A) hasn’t dealt with her own grief around the loss of her father a few years back and is therefore not comfortable showing up, or B) is not as good of a friend as I once thought she was. I haven’t felt very compelled to reach out to learn which one it is. Okay, excuse the rant! Any feedback will be appreciated.
  • Don’t give me the sad face the first time you see me in passing after the loss. Seriously, this is the worst. I’m at the grocery store, in a great mood, weeks after my mom died, her death being the last thing on my mind at the moment. And there is my friend, who sees me and immediately associates me with all things tragic. The overly concerned, “How are you?” Well, I was just great, until I ran into you! I am absolutely sure I’ve done this in the past. I remember bringing it up to a friend who’d recently lost her dad the first time I saw her out at a concert after her loss, and she told me straight up not to talk about it. Understand, with grief come myriad emotions. It is not just about depression and despair. For me, there has been a surprising amount of joy in the release of my mom’s spirit. So, don’t project your idea of what grief is onto me. Instead, when you see me, greet me with an uplifting smile. Let me know how happy you are to see me. Tell me you heard about my loss and are available to talk or help out in any way. Pay attention and respond to my response. If I just nod and smile and say thank you, move on to the next subject.
  • Do share your memories with me. In the time of my mom’s passing, family and friends gathered together on several occasions. It was such a treat for me to hear stories about my mom from those in her generation, stories I had never heard that helped me get to know her in ways I never did before. Another extended family member sent me old pictures of my mom. These stories and mementos are such a sacrament, like healing salve on an open wound.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Please gift us with your contribution to this list, because I know that everyone has a different experience with grief. Thanks for reading!

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The Afterlife

 Back when I was in my early twenties and did crazy things like eat psychedelic mushrooms, I once had a vision. I found myself on a rock in a secret place deep under the ocean. Around me sat all of my female ancestors, welcoming me with great joy. They were all lounging about on the rock, with no cares, very happy, and completely peaceful. It was light and warm and expansive there. I remember feeling like I had walked into a spa, this atmosphere of profound relaxation, and…immense relief.

I knew in this moment that this was the afterlife. I knew I would be welcomed here when it came time for me to die. In fact, around this same time period, my grandmother died, and I dreamed that I ran into her at an actual spa, and she was vibrant and joyful and free.

I don’t subscribe to any particular religion. I don’t believe in a fixed idea of heaven or hell. I do believe anything is possible, and that there is some truth and some falsehood to every religion. I have also come across people in my life who feel so familiar, and so much like immediate family, that I tend to believe in past lives.

The only thing that I am sure of though, is that I don’t know. I believe that whatever happens after we die is so amazing that it is simply beyond our comprehension. I do not believe it is possible for us to truly understand what happens after death while we are still in our physical bodies, because we have no context to place it within.

Even this vision is diminished when I try to put it into words. I do like to believe that it’s real, though. I like to believe that my mom, who will shortly pass, will land here, welcomed by her ancestors, nourished by this circle of women, and rewarded for all of her hard work here on Earth.

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Innocence meets reality

“The only things worth living for are innocence and magic.”   ~David Gray

This weekend, we went apple picking. As we left the house, I pointed out the leaves falling from our Catalpa tree, and Gavin said, “The leaves are falling because it’s Fall!” And I told him we were going apple picking because it’s Fall, too.We drove up the coast, and then 4 miles inland into the beautiful, rolling farmland hills.

The weather was perfect, and Gavin filled up his canvas Sesame Street bag excitedly. It was his first time picking apples, and he was overjoyed that he could reach them, from the dwarf trees. D, Gavin, and I tested the apples as we picked, passing them around our circle of three. They were delicious, perfectly crisp, and sweet with just the right amount of tartness.

The afternoon was pure bliss. In moments like these, I can see through my son’s three year-old eyes the wonderment of something so simple. The unfiltered joy of biting into a freshly picked apple on a beautiful Autumn afternoon. Because he is so innocent, he still sees the magic in everything. He reminds me of it, too.                                                  Image

Sunday night, we were driving home, and the full moon had just risen, and it hovered low in the sky, big and shining brightly. Gavin was sleep deprived, ready for bed, and started whining about being in the car seat. We distracted him by pointing to the moon, and telling him to watch and see if it followed us home.

We turned a corner, and Gavin spied the moon up there, still in his sight. “It is following us!” he yelled in excitement. The rest of the way home, he avidly looked in all directions every time we turned, and he kept a running broadcast. “It’s not there! It’s not following us. There the’s moon! It is following us!”

There is something so precious about this age, this beginning to understand, but everything is so new, and there are no mental files, no past references to sift through to make sense of something new.

He has such a zest for life, and eagerness to learn, to understand, to experience. And complete trust, or a lack of fear.

I miss this in my life. I can remember feeling like this in my late teens, maybe into my early twenties. I wasn’t as naive as a three year-old, of course, but, I had this sense that there was pain and there was suffering “out there,” while my family and I were in some kind of a bubble. We were blessed. Tragedy could not touch us. I still felt immortal, almost. I knew that death would affect me at some point, but that point was far, far way, so far that it wasn’t real.

It’s real, now. It became real to me when my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the young age of 62. She will turn 68 next month, and I am slowly watching her lose all of her faculties, one by one. I see my mother shrinking away. She is a tiny, minuscule speck of the lively woman she once was.

I miss that feeling that nothing can touch me. I miss the innocence I had around pregnancy and childbirth, just a year ago, when I started trying for Baby #2, with a deep trust in my body’s ability to grow a baby successfully, before I experienced the miscarriages and all of the complications that continue to accompany them.

What I don’t miss is the illusion of immortality. I am beginning to really grasp my mortality, and it makes me more alive. It makes me more like my son: appreciating every moment, eager to learn and experience, in awe, seeing the magic in “simple” things. It is scary to face death, more terrifying than anything, but so incredibly deeply grounding. It is so bitter, but then the flavor kind of grows on you, because it is medicine.

And, really, we have no choice, so we might as well embrace it.

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