If you are expecting a bullet point presentation of "Ten Ways to Help Someone Grieve" then this is not your article. As a matter of fact I have already looked for that sort of information. It wasn’t very helpful. It has been my experience that you really don’t know what grief will look like, how to help, what to say, what not to say, until you are in the situation. The grief response is as unique as the person going through it. Earlier this week I went to a funeral. A good friend of mine lost her father. As strange as this may seem at my age, 47, I have not been to a whole lot of funerals. I felt inept with my lack of experience and understanding of the rituals and religious practices which are associated with death. So I called upon friends to help me know what I might expect and how to help.
Would there be a viewing? An open casket? A wake? A mass? A burial? What do I wear to the funeral? Do I send flowers? Give to charity? Send a card? Should I bring a meal? Which ceremonies are most important to attend? Do I call? Do I wait? My anxiety and obsession over doing the right thing detracted from connecting with my friend during her time of need.
My first experience with death was over four decades ago when I lost my father when I was four. I was not allowed to go to his funeral. So in my young mind he was there and then he was gone. I was not privy to those in-between moments between life and death. I never got to visit him in the hospital where he died. My mother, in her protection of me, did not grant me any closure or a goodbye. My mother did not use the word death to describe what had happened to my father. Instead she told me that he was sleeping and could not wake up. After this I feared sleep and to this day a part of me still does. It is not surprising that death was and still is a mystery to me.
I was thinking of my father as I entered the church to see my friend and her family. Was this ceremony something I would have understood as a young child? I also felt a growing wariness that I would say the wrong thing to my friend or her family. My social anxiety causes me to doubt my abilities especially in social situations. I decided to just say whatever was in my heart.
In the front room of the chapel, family and friends were gathered. I approached one younger family member and said, "I am so sorry." The response I received was unexpected. "Why are you sorry? It wasn’t your fault" and then she quickly walked away. I sensed pain in her curt response. I am sure she probably heard the same words of sympathy a dozen or more times already. It was then that I realized that maybe there is never any "right" thing to say after a loss. But it is still important to try anyway.
I did get to speak with my friend and give her a long hug. She seemed to really appreciate that I came. I don’t know how people do it when they experience a loss and then have to get dressed up and be social to boot. I asked her, "What can I do for you friend?" And she whispered in my ear, "Just be here for me." I felt comfort in her words that this was something I could do. I could simply be there for her in whatever capacity she needed. To listen. To support. To love. These rituals and services are a way to put order to the grieving process and promote closure. But perhaps more importantly they provide a way to bring people together for support.
During the service it began to rain, slow at first, but then it was coming down like sheets and was almost drowning out the priest’s voice. Then came the boom of thunderclaps. Nature’s orchestra seemed a fitting tribute for my friend’s father. Miraculously the storm ended just as we were all to proceed outside.
My friend’s father’s ashes were being carried outside. I was unaware of what event would come next. We all met near a round wall where ashes could be kept inside a block sized space within the structure. I knew that the moment of placing the ashes within the wall would be the final symbolic gesture. All those decades of life so neatly confined in a container half the size of a shoe box. How could this be? It seemed so surreal as time slowed perceptibly. There was a momentary stillness as the ashes were placed inside and then a collective release of tears. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust repeated like a refrain in my mind.
Where do we go from here? Nobody really knows. These are the secrets kept by those in tombs, walls, and vaults. And the silence is deafening.
Meanwhile we are left here to grieve, wonder, and contemplate.
I learned from my experience that maybe there are no right words to say to someone who is grieving. I believe it is more in the touch. Holding someone’s hand, a steady palm on the shoulder for support, or a loving embrace says more than anything our minds could conjecture.
Before I left the church I gave my friend a silent embrace. It said everything I needed to say.
As if on cue, the sun broke through the clouds and illuminated the memorial wall. We live, we love, we struggle, we embrace, we let go, and we die. In the cosmic blink of an eye, we too, will make this journey. Between here and there is love. And I like to believe that love continues after our journey has ended. Just like the sun, love never goes away. Love still warms and glows even after death. My hope for my friend is that she will keep the love of her father alive by sharing his life and spirit with others. Isn’t this what we all hope for? That our life will be remembered in light and love? In this way we live forever.
To read more about grief please refer to the following Health Central articles:
You may find more of Merely Me on her blog: I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends