His mum is a good friend of mine. She's much younger than me. In fact we met when she was hired as a new teacher and I was a fifteen year veteran. Her desk was next to mine. That year we bonded over grade nine English lesson plans and moaning about our wardrobes. I left the next September to take a headship in another school, and we have met every few months for lunch or dinner since then. We've sipped wine or coffee, and yakked, mostly about work and clothes, for almost twenty years. Since then she's married, become a department head herself, then a vice-principal, and now a principal. And she's had three lovely sons. She calls me her "mentor" and I'm flattered to be thus characterized. Flattered because she's smart and kind and funny and a seriously hard worker. She didn't need me to get where she is. But it's nice to be thought of that way.
So what exactly does one say to a much younger friend when one has no idea how they must be feeling? How it is to be so devastated by loss. How it is to even have a child, let alone lose one. What to say, or do, when one frankly has no clue how to be helpful. No clue at all.
I've been doing a bit of reading. Seeing what psychologists and people who should know this stuff say about what friends can do for friends who are grieving. Of course, they all say the main thing is to be there. Not to disappear when the first weeks have passed and the crowds of relatives and friends have gone home, for the most part. I found this article by clinical counselor Megan Devine to be most helpful. She doesn't pull any punches, says to remember that the situation is "not about you." Warns friends not to try to "fix the unfixable." And admonishes them to make sure they "show up, say something, do something." Sounds simple doesn't it?
I had a long chat with my mum today. Funny, isn't it, to be sixty years old and still asking your mum for advice? Mum was widowed at age 23 when her first husband was killed. My older brother and sisters were 4 years, 2 years and 5 weeks old respectively. Mum says she doesn't remember much about the aftermath of that tragedy. But today she spoke of one friend whom she remembers as being of particular comfort to her. And that's because the friend was content to just sit quietly, sometimes "do" my mum's hair, and never seemed to feel compelled to fill the silence with chatter. Mum said she remembers hating all the chatter. I guess the chatterers with their kindly meant aphorisms were doing what Megan Devine would call trying to "fix the unfixable."
I remember the first winter after I retired, when Hubby had his heart operation, how at a loss I was afterward when he seemed to want to only look at the negative. How my Pollanna-ish comments, and constant looking for the bright side, only seemed to annoy him. And a counselor I know told me to stop trying to make him be positive. That I should simply be acknowledging his pain and anger. Not trying to make it go away. I was trying to fix him, and his depression, I guess.
One thing I found really helpful during that rather stressful time was something a psychologist friend posted on Facebook. That "no empathetic statement ever started with at least." Oh my. That's exactly what all his friends had been doing. At least you're alive. At least you didn't have a heart attack. At least Susan is retired now and can be home all the time. Something else that comes to mind about those first few months after I retired and Hubby was ill is that all my friends seemed to have disappeared. A couple of years later, I remember remarking that I found it lonely that first winter. And a friend said, "...well... you have lots of friends...they must have been around." Ah. Not so much. Most were still working. And the others, well, not sure what happened there, to tell you the truth.
Now, don't get me wrong; I am not trying to equate my young friend's obviously heartbreaking loss with what I felt during Hubby's illness. Not at all. I'm just saying that maybe some of what I learned that winter can help me to be more helpful for her.
|Fresh snowfall today, on the Rideau.|
So I'll do my best just to be present for her. If and when I'm needed. I will not say "at least", and hopefully not try to "fix the unfixable." I will try not to chatter if chatter is not what she wants. We might go for a walk. I could bring muffins and tea, if she feels like muffins and tea. Whatever. Because of course as my mum wisely said, "everyone is different in their grief." And I guess my first step is to find out what my grieving young friend needs. And doesn't need.
It's a start anyway.