Collage in Japanese paper by artist & writer Fernando González Viñas.
If you know me a bit, then you know that dealing with death feels now quite natural to me. If you don’t know me much but you read me here, you’ve probably seen my true colours at some pooint. I am sure I used to feel more scared about death before I had her close to me, however, I cannot remember anymore how it was before she came. I am aware now of the fact that her existence became pretty familiar to me one day and since then, she’s got her space reserved, and that, actually, makes me feel good.
However, and in general, in this western culture we tend to feel uncomfortable when facing her. We find fear, rejection and don’t manage grieving too well. We don’t know how to deal with ours and we have no idea of how to do it with others.
We need to learn many different things in life, and this is possibly one of the most useful: managing our soul’s sorrows, awkwardness, anxiety, fear to the unknown… Also, learning how to walk that path together with others, because when pain touches them closely, they will need some support in order to integrate their own experience. And, are we ready to give that kind of support?
When we have to help others through a grieving process, we always do everything with the best intention. However, sometimes, we say or do things that instead of helping end up being disturbing or adding even more awkwardness to the situation. So I would like to share today a few ideas that come from my very own experience about how to walk through grief with them and for them. Only five touches:
1- When Dave was taken to hospital, I rang my brother and he continued the communicative chain. In 4 hours there was him, my auntie & uncle, my parents & my cousins, all together joining strenghts for a couple of days. My parents stayed for a month and my friend Sean used to come every day after work to give us some company. The greatest support was to feel them present for me, knowing they were there, talking about daily routine to add some normality to the situation. Sean was telling me about work, about his tracking routes, about his family back in Canada. Sometimes I guess I was quiet and others I managed to speak, I cannot remember to be honest. What I do remember is that he talked when he had to and stayed quiet when needed too. That way of being present was a huge blessing to me at the time.
2- Some people said to me ‘call me if you need anything’, but I was unable to ask for anything. It was hard enough for me to see every hour pass and having to eat, to sleep, to deal with that awful sensation of fear & uncertainty deep inside my stomach. However, there were practical issues to deal with from the very first minute: organs donation, death certificate, cremation, credit card, mobile phone & subscriptions’ cancelations, legal matters… I didn’t have to ask my family for help because they were right there taking care of everything that I could not deal with at the time. My brother set himself up as representative & spokesman, doing & undoing, going everywhere together with my dad, functioning both as a perfectly efficient tandem, simply informing briefly on arrival, remaining calm (or at least that’s how it felt to me and that was so helpful!) Meanwhile, my mum was busy at home cooking, cleaning, shopping, organising the internals so between them all, thanks to their self initiative, they allowed me to do what I truly felt: being by myself with my thoughts & emotions without having to worry about practical issues. I didn’t have to ask them anything and therefore they knew how to give me everything, even what I didn’t know that was needed.
3- The words that we give away sometimes to someone who has lost a loving one can reach that person without no meaning at all or blurred by an unpleasant halo that it is not well received. Hearing phrases such as ‘it was his time to go’, ‘he is already resting in peace’ or ‘God has him now’ were not helping me at all, believe me, but quite the opposite. I could shout terrible things to God’s face if I had the chance of having him there. That sort of formulas, which I understand are said with the best intention, only brought extra discomfort to me. ‘I am so sorry’, ‘I am deeply sorry for your loss’, ‘my thoughts are with you’ or ‘we will miss him loads’ were more than enough & actually very comforting. Even just a hug, a kiss, holding my hand, sharing a few tears or writing a genuine note of sympathy. The key is thinking about the person’s needs, what can be useful to her instead of acting from our own way to see things, answering to our own needs or sense of spirituality. Beliefs can be offensive in a time of such a great fragility.
4- After a month, my parents head back to their home. But my friend Sean kept coming home nearly every day, ringing me, asking me how I was, suggesting me plans, telling me about his daily routine. He kept doing it even after receiving many negatives from me. He never gave up coming or calling. On Wednesdays I started to go to his place for dinner. We were cooking together, chatting away, watching tv, and I used to stay overnight, feeling there like in a shelter. That constant support over time and that way of being present, were a lifesaver for me. His perseverance without putting any pressure helped me more that he can probably realise.
5- At the end the key of everything is acceptance: accepting the tempo and the needs of the person that is going through grief. Respecting her space. Learning to see further of what she says or shows. Accepting her negatives and her not knowing how to behave when she says yes. Understanding that it is awkward and it hurts. Knowing how to wait.
Presence, leading with initiative, choosing words with meaning, keep showing support when days & weeks pass, accepting… I know it might sound easy and I know it is an incredible task when we need to take it into practise. How to do it? Just by thinking about the other person more than about my own fears, needs & insecurities. If I drive myself that way, I will get it right for sure and I would also be able to give her something useful, valuable & unforgettable.
Again, this is not one of those life lessons taught anywhere official or academic, but like many others, we can learn it as we go, becoming better life companions. Then we will have many chances to take exams on it…
“I feel this boat of mine
has struck, deep down,
against something vast.
And yet nothing
-Nothing happens; or has everything happened,
and we are already, tranquil, within the new?”
(Poem Seas, by Juan Ramón Jiménez)