“Are we there yet?“ — one of the most annoying questions parents hear. Invariably, no matter how long remained was too long for our children. When they were young, we sometimes answered that if they asked one more time, we’d turn the car around and go back home.
On a few occasions, we circled back to where we started, postponing the excursion for another day.
Their petition came regardless of our destination — rare, days-long, out-of-state road trips; frequent, up-to-an-hour-long, crosstown errands; or thrice-weekly, around-the-corner church meetings . All drives were apt to include variations on the dreaded question.
In hindsight, I realize our kids were eager for the fun to begin (or at least for the end of being strapped into car seats and belts while motion sickness churned their tummies). But while we were behind the wheel, our focus was to convey everyone safely from point A to point B. (If I could manage not getting lost when I was driving — ha! — so much the better.*)
Maybe asking “When will we get there?“ reflected part of our kids’ intellectual development, too. They were still learning the basics of how time flows and is measured. They were learning to anticipate upcoming landmarks on familiar routes and weren’t yet able to estimate the amount of time it would take to reach the next location they could relate to during their journey.
And at that point in their lives, they lacked the experience to realize (or in some cases to care) how annoying it was to be asked.
We were more worried about reaching our destination intact than in time. If the Bruces were late, we were late … as long as we didn’t become the late Bruces in our attempt to arrive.
Sometimes detours or road conditions made our best estimates to “How long is it gonna take?“ woefully wrong. (And, oh, did we hear about it!)
Then life’s day-to-day travels crashed into the worst kind of unplanned detour. My husband died.
My estimated arrival times died with him.
“Are you better yet?“ — one of the most annoying questions mourners hear. With precious and dear exceptions, no matter how recent my bereavement felt, it seemed to take too long for those around me. When my grief was still young, I first answered bluntly, “No, of course not.”
If the same person asked more than once, I soon learned my frank answers disappointed them; disapproval showed in their expressions, voices, and words. I turned myself around when I saw them (or their phone numbers). That I was “still” not “better” (meaning not yet my former, pre-widowed self again) shamed me into silence about my real feelings. (Grieving was hard enough without being made to feel I was doing it the wrong way.) I put on my plastic smile and said, “Mm-hmm” — and got away from them as fast as I could.
In hindsight, I realize my friends were still learning the basics of what it meant to be around someone who’d lost a loved one. And they were eager for my sadness to end (as evidenced when I cried my way through conversations). But while I fumbled my way through learning to cope with life-altering loss, my focus was simply to endure a single day from one moment to the next.
Any planning, any estimation, any sense of the “when” of things was beyond my capacity. Death detoured my timing in every way. It slowed me down. (I know others who fell into fast-paced flurries of keep-busy actions to try to keep their grief from catching up with them; it sometimes worked — temporarily.)
It took me twice as long to do the dishes (when I remembered to cook — or to eat — and the two didn’t necessarily happen together anymore). It took me twice as long (or more) to get dressed in the morning. Four times as long to pay the bills and attend necessary business transactions. And getting to sleep or staying asleep … (sigh). Let’s just say my internal sleep clock has been at the repair shop for several years now …
I had a trouble estimating how I’d fare on the other side of the next five or ten minutes. Figuring out what would happen another day was tougher. What would the next week hold? (Thinking that far ahead made my head hurt almost as much as my heart.) The following month? Ha! (In case the italicized “Ha” with an exclamation point didn’t convey it clearly the first time, let me repeat. Ha!)
Questions about my five- or ten-year plans were as impossible to answer as “When are you going to act like normal again?“
Maybe asking “When will you be done with grieving?“ reflected part of my acquaintances’ empathetic development. They were still learning the basics of how grief flowed and ebbed around time-warped detours on an unfamiliar journey they couldn’t relate to. Yet because of what they observed in how I grieved my husband, they were awakened to an uncomfortable realization: they would someday lose a loved one, too.
Their need to ask, “So, is everything okay now?“ stemmed as much from their lack of experience with grieving as it did from their genuine concern for me. And at that point in their lives, they had no way to realize how annoying it was to be asked.
Instead of asking your grieving friends how long it will take them to “get over” their bereavement, assure them you accept them and support them no matter where (and when) they are in their grief.
*I’ve been known to get lost even when following GPS directions. In a future post I’ll share more about getting lost in other ways while finding my way through grief.
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