Image of Ground Zero Memorial by Oleg Illarionov on Unsplash
It’s a tricky thing, supporting others who have experienced great loss. Even when you yourself have experienced great loss. Even when you have experienced the “same” great loss, dammit.
It’s a tricky thing because of so many tricky things. Tricky things like the natural human compulsion to want people not to be in pain. Or the natural human compulsion not to want to be in pain from witnessing others’ pain.
It’s a tricky icky mess.
And even if you’re aware of these natural human compulsions, and try hard to override them with people in the immediate or recent aftermath of great loss, it’s still unfathomably difficult.
What to say? How to be? What “worked” for me? What “helped” me? For I am still here, am I not? Something must have “worked”.
Even when I know – I truly know – that no words “fix”, no suggestions “help” in the way most people believe they want, it’s nevertheless tempting to search for words or suggestions.
Oh – in case you’re wondering… the reason nothing “helps”?
Let’s face it, they want their loved one back.
Is that such a big ask?
It’s also tricky because memories are not very reliable. My memories of yesterday are not very reliable, let alone my memories of day 7 after Mike died. Or day 31 after Julia died. Or even days 333 or 999 after they had both died.
And most especially, it is tricky because each and every one of us is so very different.
Different upbringings, childhoods, family dynamics, attachment patterns…. (etc etc)
Different levels of preparedness around the death (forewarned or not? conversations or not?)
Different forms of education around Grief and Loss and what is “normal” (there is no normal and everything is normal)
Different kinds of (skilled) support around us (friends, family, community, therapists, books, etc)
Different degrees of acceptance of the normality of death
It’s a complex human system if ever there was one.
The questions I get most often from people who have “just” lost a spouse or a child – or both – are a desperate-sounding “How did you do it? Just how on earth do you do it?”
But actually, people are not so interested in hearing how I do anything, really. Instead they are desperate to know how they should do it. Whatever “it” is.
They want tips. For tips is all the brain can take in, cognitive functioning being so impaired with Grief and Loss. Tips for “How do I carry on living?”
And of course there is nothing. No words. No suggestions. No tips. Nothing truly useful. Not really.
Last night I learned of yet another new widow. A woman I got to know through the new hospice volunteer facilitation work I lead. A woman who has been volunteering with people who are at end of life. She is in her 40s, I imagine.
Her husband just died. Unexpectedly. Suddenly. Out of the blue. Two weeks ago.
I realise I don’t know what to say, other than, “I am so very sorry”. For there is nothing that makes a difference.
Even saying, “I am here, you know where to find me, you know that I have had some experience of what you are now facing”, puts too much responsibility on her.
I know that I will dance around whether or not to be in touch with her. How often. Whether to call directly or whether just to write. I know that I will be tiptoeing on eggshells when/if we eventually meet or talk live.
I don’t know her well. I don’t know her husband. I don’t know if she has kids to care for. I don’t know if she is working professionally. All I know is her name, her innocent smiling face, and that her husband just died.
And now she is living her own version of Ground Zero.
Should we eventually meet and talk, I’ll do my best to listen. I’ll do my best to manage and be with my own triggered feelings, and not make the discomfort about me. I’ll do my best not to offer advice, however much she might wail, “What do I do?! How did you do this??! How the fuck do I do this???!”
I will do my best to convey a balance of truth with caution – “Yes – this fucking sucks. I am so sorry. And it will hurt for a long time. Perhaps forever”, without her wanting to slit her wrists. I remember being aghast when people told me that the second year was worse than the first. How could anything be worse?
There really aren’t good tips for the immediate aftermath. “Immediate” being perhaps the first two years following a life-changing loss. Or at least, the tips are not ones you want to hear. For they are things like:
Self-care self-care self-care self-care!
Try to be out in nature.
Don’t worry about your alcohol intake. At least not now.
Don’t add pressure and suffering where you can avoid it.
And I also remember hearing, “Find people who have experienced this loss”. “Find community”.
But the problem is, there’s no energy to do that.
You want your friends to be there, but they are unskilled (most likely). Or they run for the hills (even more likely).
No – there are no real tips or advice or suggestion for someone reeling. Just being with and centre-ing with them. Breathing. Remembering to breathe.
Years out now – seven years since Don died, seven years since Ed died, six years since Mike died, and close to four years since Julia died, I am flabbergasted at how hard it still is.
How close to tears I am – permanently.
How a piece of music, a film, a piece of writing, a poem, a photo, a view… will be overwhelming.
How forever changed I am. More irritable. More patient.
How forever changed family dynamics are.
How devastated formerly precious friendships have become.
How deep friendships with people I never thought I’d meet have become.
How to convey any of this?
It’s not a pretty picture.
It’s not what a newly grieving person in their Ground Zero wants to hear.
And it’s probably not even true.
For what do I know anyway?
It all feels like a lifetime ago.
Even when it is still going on.
Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.