When someone dies, don’t tell survivors how strong they are. Tell them you’ll be strong beside them so they don’t have to — and follow through.
The first times people called me strong after my husband died, I had no idea how to respond. Their expressions and tones made it clear they’d intended to compliment me, but I couldn’t accept their words. I’d look at them, thinking, How can I say the expected “thank you” to such a blatant lie?
The truth was, I was broken, shattered into a million loosely gathered shards. The softest puff of sympathy or the least gust of gruffness might send my fragmented psyche as irretrievably into the wind as overripe dandelions in the hands (and breath) of enthused toddlers.
I was not strong. And it puzzled me that anyone might think I was.
I cried all the time. All. The. Time.
Everyday chores I’d mastered years earlier now confused me.
New tasks (including seemingly endless death-related business matters) overwhelmed me.
The sudden, sole responsibilities of single parenting had my knees buckling.
Strong, I was not. But that’s what was expected (and even demanded) of me. “Don’t cry,” some said. “You have to be strong for your daughters.”
Such words (though intended as encouragement) deeply shamed me. Being anyone else’s rock is a heavy burden when you’re scarcely able to hold onto yourself.
Didn’t they realize how much strength seeped from me in getting out of bed each morning? Didn’t they know how much energy I exerted just remembering to breathe? Had they no idea how sucked away my strength felt after days and weeks and months of only sparse, grief- and nightmare-riddled, interrupted naps instead of genuine sleep?
Telling me how strong I was didn’t feel like a compliment. It felt like being told I could and should be able to handle everything on my own.
But I couldn’t.
Telling me I was strong didn’t make me feel capable. It made me feel like I wasn’t worthy of asking for help.
So I didn’t.
Sorrow saps strength. Grieving grinds it away. Bereavement burdens and bruises the body. Mourning makes mincemeat of memory.
So step in.
How can you offer your strength to grieving friends?
- Help your mourning friends with physical tasks like mowing the lawn or shoveling snow or washing the car or doing the dishes and laundry. (*See important note about this below!)
- Go along on emotionally charged errands (like changing car titles, account names, or banking business into the survivors’ names). Don’t make general offers like “call me if you want me to go” — they won’t. Instead, be specific: “Can I take you to the auto tag office Thursday afternoon to help you transfer the title into your name?” or “Would Tuesday or Wednesday be better for me to drive you to the Social Security office to submit the claim for the kids’ benefits?” or “The minute the funeral home says you can pick up the death certificates, call me. I want to help.”
- Look out for your bereaved friends’ health. Bring a healthy meal, invite your friends on nature walks, share your favorite sleep soundtrack, take them for a massage, mention you need your own six-month dental cleaning and ask if they need you to call their dentist to schedule theirs …
- Make a list. Mourning makes remembering anything a challenge. Write down tasks your friend might mention in passing. Offer reminders of appointments. Write down memories of their deceased loved one. Write down all the kindnesses other friends extend to your grieving mutual friend.
- Be present. The loneliness of mourning a person missing from your life is difficult to describe. Acknowledge your awareness your friend is hurting. Sometimes the bereaved need reminders they (the deceased and the bereaved) aren’t forgotten and that they are valued for themselves — not just for who they used to be in relation to the ones no longer living. If you live nearby, sitting in silence alongside your friends will strengthen them just by your willingness to witness their sorrow. If you live far from them, you can still be “present” with phone calls, texts, instant messages, and even old-fashioned snail mail.
Here’s the irony:
Now, five-plus years later, I can honestly say, I’ve become strong. I’ve had to. I’ve become stronger than my pre-widowed self could have imagined. The bones of my broken soul reknit into a construction of titanium lace.
But it took being broken — and much, much longer than six to eight weeks — to grow that strength.
(Sometimes, I also admit, the holes in that titanium knit lace soul of mine still feel more jagged than smooth, more broken than whole. Grieving, like living, is a process.)
*Please note: ALWAYS, Always, always ask before washing or putting away or cleaning up after the deceased person’s clothing, dishes, or even apparent trash! (Mourners may need and want to handle those newly sacred, last-touched items themselves.)
My daughter told me this yesterday. One scientist: “Tell me the joke about potassium.”
Second scientist: “K.”
Every person grieves differently, and every loss is different, whether it be loss of health, a job, a pet, or a loved one, or a different loved one. In most cases I’ve known, before a person CAN see or be comforted by humor, they must be mourned WITH.
I’m so glad I coaxed Aunt Ginny and Granddad (her brother) into sitting for portraits that day. (Picture didn’t appear in my Segullah comment.)
My beloved great-aunt died last weekend. Her funeral is today in another state and I can’t be there. She was nearly 96, and all the family is relieved (though with teary eyes) for her sake that she didn’t linger long after falling and suffering multiple breaks two days earlier. As we go through her lived-through-the-Depression-so-never-discarded-anything house just around a few corners from mine, there’s a lot of laughter. My biggest laugh so far? The discovery of a beautiful little antique glass bottle … labeled and filled with her late husband’s kidney stones. He passed in the mid-70s, though he probably passed the stones much earlier. (Pun intended!)
On the other hand (of possible reactions), even in my relief for her release and return to long-gone loved ones, I’m forever going to miss her sweet, rose-colored, glass nearly-full (never just half-) day-to-day presence. I ache in her absence. My most sentimental sob-inducing find so far? A 3×4-inch scrap of paper drifted out from the pages of a huge stack of ancestral research. On it that sentimental woman had jotted down my youngest daughter’s birth information (name, time, size, etc.) when I called her from the hospital that morning … She’d even written down “Teresa doing well and breakfast just delivered to her room.”
When I became a widow at 44 it was completely unexpected. Blindsided by grief, I deeply resented those who said, “You’re kidding!” or “You’re joking!” to the news of my 47-year-old husband’s death. (Four years later, I understand they thought they were as blindsided as my daughters and I.) I also resented (and was repelled by) those who in any way tried to make light of our loss. What I (and my daughters) needed was to be mourned with before we could be comforted.
On the other hand (of possible reactions), I quickly recognized, took solace in, and quickly developed the dark widowed humor of others who’d experienced the deaths of their spouses. (Now there’s no need to shave your legs in the winter, no one will steal the covers from your side of the bed, you can have the last word in every argument, stick a red paper hourglass on a black T-shirt and you’ll never have to create another Halloween costume…) Coming from people who hadn’t walked in widowhood’s path, their comments would have felt like minimizing slaps in the face; coming from a community of the also-widowed, they felt like encouraging “you’ll get through this — I did” pats on the back.