Grief: the most overpowering emotion of them all. How devastating it is to lose a husband or wife, a parent or friend, or, worst of all, a child. Books are written on how to handle the process of letting go and healing, yet we rarely do we discuss death amongst ourselves, despite the frequency with which it intrudes into our lives–especially as we age. Widows and widowers don’t wear black for any longer than the funeral; we no longer cover our mirrors to let the world know that a family member has left us; we clean out their closets and give everything to charity or neighbors a week or two after they pass.
Because of our desire to avoid the subject, we can sometimes be remarkably insensitive to the needs of those who are bereaved. Perhaps inadvertently, people turn away as the weeks go by. Silence begins to creep in after the flurry of cards in the mailbox stops, after the legions of casseroles dropped off at the front door are eaten. Other people once again go about their days just as they did before. Yet the one who grieves remains in limbo, on hold, like a run-down clock whose hands have frozen into place. After a while, no one else is there at all–except the specter of the one who’s gone.
Ultimately, very few people–even those who love us most deeply–know how to express comfort. All too often we hear truisms like: “time heals all wounds;” or “you’ll always carry him in your heart;” or the most unbelievably tactless of all: “I know just how you feel,” even though the slowest among us should recognize that grief is unique to the individual.
Recently, my best friend from childhood lost her husband in the space of two short hours. One minute he was there, and the next he was not. Stunned beyond shock, she phoned me at midnight and said the terrible words: “He’s dead.”
Stunned as well, I fumbled for the “right thing to say” and came up blank. I might well have said, “I know just how you feel,” because I have been through a lot of deaths: seven friends over the past decade, all of whom died before their time; and then my mother, my father, my all-important Nana and Aunt Joanie and Poppy, as well as Gaga and Grampa. The loss of my heart dog, Gulliver, continues to bring tears whenever I think of him, though he has been gone seven years now.
But I did not even consider referring to any of these parts of my past. This was her moment of loss. Her moment of grief. Empathy dictated that I support her by listening, rather than by becoming entangled in my own memories. And, in any case, she was flooded with emotions I could not begin to fathom: my husband still lives, and laughs, and argues.
The death of hers was unusually traumatic due to its sudden nature, and over those first few days when we spoke with regularity, she was unable even to begin processing her sorrow. And so I simply said all anyone should ever say, however inadequate it may feel, over and over again: “How terrible this is for you. I cannot imagine what you are going through.”
There was nothing I could possibly “do”–no way to “fix” her pain. Over the three thousand miles that kept us from a simple hug, I just offered her the time to both laugh and sob as she remembered her sweet guy, and sometimes even the space to yell at God, even though she is a very religious woman. Most of our phone calls lasted for an hour or more, crammed in whenever we could manage. We managed a lot, and continue to do so.
This kind of loss deserves the comfort only validation can bring: to know that my grieving friend endures an event both hideous and unimaginable; to reassure her that I will help treasure each and every memory by acknowledging and then sharing it; to sit in silence as she remembers and weeps; to bear knowing that there is no way to help at all with her pain, except by listening. But all this is not easy to do. It requires that I confront my own experiences with death and overcome my fears. And to do that I have to put myself aside.
Real compassion acknowledges loss head on. Real compassion does not waste time looking for “the right words.” Real compassion does not try to repair. Real compassion puts its arms around the one who grieves and allows her to find her own way. Real compassion does not expect her to “get over it” anytime soon–or maybe ever.
My friend still cries every night as she climbs into a bed where no husband waits, where there is no one to offer warmth or companionship or tenderness. In that moment, she is one hundred percent alone. Some people close to her believe she is “doing well,” but anyone who allows himself to look below the surface of her “everyday” face sees her obvious and all-encompassing pain.
How hard is it to imagine the storms of tears that surely overtake her in private? How different would it be if she could express her sadness and pain in more public ways, where more friends could experience it with her and offer solace? What would it be like if she could take up that old custom of wearing black for a year to show how bereft she truly is? Perhaps she will never conquer her grief, because grief like this is meant only to be lived with and accepted.
I wonder if, in the process of not putting such loss behind us, we keep those we love lit up with a strong memorial flame; isn’t this a way to give them a life that never ends? A place a bit like Heaven, though you don’t go to church to find it. That safe haven is built on the memories stored in the hearts and minds of those who have known us well. Acknowledging death and allowing ourselves to ride the waves of despair that always accompany grief–well, that’s just another way to plumb the depths of love.