25 02 2015

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Soon it will be two years since Mel died. Conventional wisdom says that by now I have settled into my life as a widow and should be doing well. Outwardly I suppose I am, but the truth is I’m really good at not saying what I feel. I specialize in maintaining the illusion that I have survived my tragedy and now all is great. Yeah, right.

The truth? I used to think there was a timeline. I used to believe you eventually get over a loss. I used to think life would return to normal after a respectable time of mourning. Today I’m on the other side, and I’m here to tell you that none of those things is true.

Here’s the honest truth. Grief never ends. It changes, it’s a passage. It’s not a sign of weakness or a lack of faith. Grief is the price of LOVE. Grief is as unique as a fingerprint, but for those who share this state of being there is a common thread. I’m there too. My grief  is different than yours, but I share the common bond of pain with you. I understand the long-term effects. I know you don’t get over it.

Being an introvert can be extremely difficult in the lens of loss. Some of the widows I’ve been privileged to meet are quite vocal about their grief, and I envy their natural ability to express themselves. I wonder if that freedom relieves their sorrow in some small way. Much as I wish I could speak so freely, that is not who I am. So I nod and smile and say what I’m expected to say: I’m fine. Doing well. Thanks for asking.

Patrick O’Malley, a psychotherapist in Fort Worth, wrote the following article titled Getting Grief Right for a series in the New York Times Couch series (January 10, 2015):

“Mary was a successful accountant, a driven person who was unaccustomed to being weighed down by sorrow.     She was also well versed in the so-called stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. To her and so many others in our culture, that meant grief would be temporary and somewhat predictable, even with the enormity of her loss. She expected to be able to put it behind her and get on with her life. . .
THAT model is still deeply and rigidly embedded in our cultural consciousness and psychological language. It inspires much self-diagnosis and self-criticism among the aggrieved. This is compounded by the often subtle and well-meaning judgment of the surrounding community. A person is to grieve for only so long and with so much intensity. (Italics mine.)
To look at her, she already had done so. The mask she wore for the world was carefully constructed and effective. She seemed to epitomize what many people would call “doing really well,” meaning someone who had experienced a loss but looked as if she was finished grieving.”

That last sentence hit the mark for me. Looked as if says it all. Outward appearance can be such a liar, something most people will take at face value, want to take at face value. After all, if you dig into it and ask more pointed questions, things could get really messy. Most people don’t want to get their hands dirty or become invested because they fear the dreaded I never know what to say.

I speak for many others in my position when I say we often feel isolated, standing on the sidelines while the rest of the world moves on with their normal lives. It has become my world, not ours. It is now my weekend, not ours. I talk about my house, not ours. We has changed to I, ours to my. The list goes on, every item I tick off with a singular pronoun instead of a plural.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk about your lives and the things you are doing. You definitely should. I want to hear about them and share in your good times. It helps make life balanced for me to be told of your vacation, or some silly (or annoying) thing your spouse did last week. I need to know that how we communicate hasn’t changed. The sense of normalcy we all crave is especially prevalent in those of us who have lost a precious member of our family, so hearing about your life and your family keeps me grounded. Please don’t tiptoe around me. Pretty complicated, right?

So here’s the thing. In this broken, hurting world we live in, God’s intent is not for us to suffer alone. Regardless of our psychological makeup, it’s important to let each other in. We were not created to handle life by ourselves, but rather to bear each other’s burdens, to help lighten the load we see a friend carry. Sharing is hard, especially for those of us who hold our feelings close. It requires a certain amount of risk in the form of being judged, abandoned, mocked, or maligned. I’ve had lots of experience in those areas, and it makes me cautious. I am so thankful for the friends God has given me with whom I feel safe, feel able to share those deepest feelings. What blessings they are.

For those around whom I wear the mask of ‘I’m just fine’, I would ask that you remember this: Sometimes when I say I’m okay, I need someone to look me in the eyes, see the pain there, hug me tight, and say, “I know you are not.”


The Absence of Words

11 04 2012

I’m not sure when I became aware of the concept, but over the years I have learned that there are times when not speaking is a great gift to someone who is suffering. Often our physical presence is all the assurance a person requires.

Have you ever witnessed a well-meaning person with run-at-the-mouth (RATM) disease? That’s the individual who feels compelled to offer words of wisdom or criticism at times when it’s more appropriate to just show up.

Here’s an example: a spouse dies after an especially painful illness. Ms. RATM begins to gush on about the deceased being out of his/her misery, it’s best this way, he/she is in a better place, grief doesn’t last forever, life will be easier now, etc., etc. ad nauseam.
Is this really what the widow/widower needs to hear?

I would like to offer a few thoughtful comments which are more time-appropriate and helpful to those in grief: I’m so sorry. You and your family are in our prayers. I have wonderful memories of him/her. Or just a heartfelt hug. Sometimes no words are necessary.

Another example: someone has endured abuse, either physical or verbal (or both).
Mr. RATM has a lot to say: You’re better off without him/her. You need to get on with your life. Why didn’t you leave sooner? Are you having him/her arrested? He/she really had you fooled, but we could all see it coming. What did you do to make him/her hit you? I told you so.
Helpful comments? I think they do mostly harm.

What you should say instead: I’m so sorry. I will be here for you. I love you. And, sometimes, nothing. Just be there. Offer to help with the children–better yet, call to say you’ll take them for a day. Bring a meal or two. send cards with expressions of support. Don’t judge. Never assume fault on either side–you weren’t there, you don’t know. Your job isn’t to judge, but rather to support.

Another scenario: Someone who is clinically depressed. Never, ever say the following: You need to volunteer. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Just get over it. Get a job. What’s wrong with you anyway? I’ve never had that problem because I simply refuse to let myself go there. You’re not being strong enough. Where’s your faith?
Don’t ask what you can do–you won’t get a response. But don’t disappear.

So what should you do? First of all, do not ignore this person. He/she needs to know that people care. That means sending cards that convey they are being thought of. It means showing up and just being there. Allow them to speak if they wish, but don’t offer solutions. That’s not what they need, they need an impartial listener. Bring meals. Take the kids for a day. Do the grocery shopping, washing, cleaning, if appropriate. Bring flowers from your garden.

Divorce–he says/she says situations: Don’t say good riddance, what did you do to make him/her leave, you didn’t try hard enough, what are you doing to the kids, whose fault was it, tell me what happened, divorce is wrong, (you fill in the blanks).

What to do: never take sides. Support the person by being a friend. Listen unconditionally. Don’t try to solve the problem, only the person going through the situation can do that. Often that person gets a clearer picture of their situation just by hearing him/herself saying his/her thoughts being verbalized. And remember, sometimes the couple gets back together. If you’ve said derogatory things about the spouse, you may no longer be welcome.

Final scenario (though there are countless more): A child has run away, gotten in trouble with the law, done something terrible, etc. Your children may have turned out wonderfully well. Be thankful. Never judge those parents, or tell them (or someone else) what terrible parents they are, how you would have done the raising so much better, it’s all their fault for doing things the way they did, how they were too strict, or they were too lenient, or they should have known, or walked away in this difficult time.

What you should do: Don’t judge. You’ve not walked in their shoes, nor are you privy to their home situation. If your children have been perfect, give thanks, and remember that can change on a dime. Don’t ignore the parents or their situation. But at the same time, don’t offer solutions unless they specifically ask. Listen, listen, listen. Support them. Call them. Send a thinking-of-you card. Assure them you are their friend. No one is exempt from potential problems with their children; even Billy Graham had problems with his son.

Bottom line: Sometimes words do harm. Compassion is best served when unspoken. Always, always, always, think of the effect of your words before you speak. Remember the adage by the wise little Thumper: If you can’t say something nice (or kind, or helpful) don’t say anything at all.