Just sayin’. Thoughts About Grief.

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You know, normally I’m not at a loss for words. On the blog or otherwise. But this week. Meh. Not so chatty. You see, the young son of a good friend just died. He was fourteen. And we’re all kind of gobsmacked.

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.
Late fall on the trail
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 guess where I’m going with all of this is that even if I have no clue how my friend is feeling, I do have a clue what I might do (and not do) to help. Because I do want to help. I know she has lots of loving family around her. And many old friends her own age, to whom she is closer than to me. But I do not want to assume that she has no need for an older, old friend.

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.

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26 thoughts on “Just sayin’. Thoughts About Grief.”

  1. Oh my goodness, Sue, if only each and every one of us had a friend as thoughtful and caring as you. My heart goes out to your friend for her loss, which is utterly unimaginable, whether or not one has had children of one's own.
    –Catbird Farm

  2. I am so sorry for your friend's loss, and my heart goes out to you, too, as you navigate your way in being a support for her. You are approaching your involvement in a very thoughtful manner, and I'm sure your presence will be much appreciated, whatever form it takes. Thank you for sharing the "at least" observation — that one stopped me in my tracks. I've certainly been guilty of thinking it, if not saying it, and it is not empathetic at all.
    — Denise L.

  3. I feel for the both of you. Your situations may be very different, but they are each so difficult. I was widowed at 34 and had 2 young girls. I was lucky enough to have several friends who were "there" for me. The grief was horrible- overwhelming and numbing at the same time- but their steady presence steadied me and acted as an anchor. I love them each to this day and learned much from their "being there." It was a gift beyond measure. Your loving presence in her life at this time will likely mean more to her than you will ever know.

  4. This is just what I needed to read tonight. No, we haven't experienced a major loss, just lots of little things that are adding up. I get mad at my husband when he is so negative and then I'm made when family and friends are not around. We all have to find our own way through to come out the other side.

  5. Very thoughtful and thought provoking piece. What a tragedy for your friend and I can totally identify with your feelings in this situation. Wise words especially in relation to "at least" and trying to fix the untouchable. Iris

  6. You've handled this difficult subject well & how fortunate that you still have your mum for advice . I was in the same position at one time & my friend was just pleased that I was prepared to talk about her son . She felt people were avoiding her as they were lost for words – which made it seem he hadn't existed . It is hard knowing the best thing to do because we are all different , but we have to try . Is there anything practical you could do ? Hubbie & I tidied a friends garden , so when she came home from a major op it didn't look lost . One time a friend really couldn't face anyone so I left some little flowers from my garden on her doorstep with a note . And sometimes a hug is best .
    Wendy in York

  7. Well written Sue and some very sound advice from professionals. Such a very sad topic though. Sharing it, as you have, will I'm sure be helpful to many of us. As Wendy commented …it's difficult knowing what to do but we have to do something. Call to see her …a hug, letting her know that you're there for her in practical ways as well as emotionally. I feel sometimes we can struggle with wanting to be there but not wanting to intrude. Like you, I've been in situations where I've thought …there's lots of close family, close friends …. what should I do …when should I do it?
    I feel so sad for your friend, thinking of you too ….

  8. I'm so sorry for your friend. A good friend of mine lost her husband earlier this year and your blog hit home today. Thank you for the link; I found that article very helpful as well.

    It is terrible to feel so helpless, isn't it?

  9. I am so sorry to hear about your friend's son. Your post is so helpful to those of us with out a clue how to behave under the circumstances. I am going to remember your helpful words for the future. Thank you.

  10. Oh Sue, thank you for tackling such a difficult subject. I always feel at a lost during these times, which are happening more often as we age. The linked post was very helpful.

  11. People often have a very difficult time knowing what to say and what to do/not do in circumstances when a great loss is involved. It is brave of you to broach a subject that many of us chose to ignore until we are faced with a situation…my heart aches for your friend's loss. Thank you for sharing…Alayne

  12. What a very sad story.

    I truly relate to your story about people trying to fix things. It drove me crazy when I was ill. Having someone acknowledge the fact that something really terrible happened was what I was looking for.

    Being able to just "be" there for someone shows you care.


  13. Your thoughts are very perceptive. Although much, much older, my dear friend and neighbor lost one of her children two months ago. During the long struggle with his health she seemed to enjoy just sitting and sipping tea. I tried my best just to offer friendship. Your friend is living through a tragedy and she's lucky to have such a thoughtful friend.

  14. For perhaps the first time in the short history of my blog… I'm not going to answer everyone's comments. But thanks for reading, everyone. And thanks for the good wishes for my friend. And for the additional suggestions. It means a lot that some of you have said you've been in similar situations…feeling helpless at what to do. But like Wendy said…we have to try. xo

  15. Very insightful and well thought out. We lost our oldest child at age 5 after more than a year of illness. Like your mother, I don't remember a lot from the first while afterward. I do remember our living room being full of people and chatter, but that part is all a blur. I remember that many brought food which was a lifesaver as I don't think I could have managed grocery shopping and cooking… I also had a newborn at the time. I remember one of my sisters-in-law standing at my ironing board with tears running down her face doing my ironing. Such a practical thing. I also remember the friend from afar who didn't come for the funeral. Instead, she waited and came a few weeks later and stayed a few days. That was such a blessing to me. Like you, we were surprised at who was there for us and who wasn't. Some were afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they stayed away when they really didn't have to say anything at all. "I'm sorry" or "There are no words" would have been enough. Just be there for your friend. Allow her to talk if she wants to, but don't be afraid of silence. Muffins, a walk and a cup of tea all sound appropriate.

  16. This is so sad-unthinkable!
    Thank you so much for this post and Devine's article.
    You are so thoughtful and kind friend

  17. There really are no words. Human presence is the best thing, I imagine. When an old friend lost her husband – suicide – it brought us back together as friends and I think this shared past helped. A lot of talking, crying, anger, laughter, drink, food and simple known company. Just saying: I have absolutely no idea what to say to you. That was a great place to start. Plus, doing good things like eating out, cooking together. And oh, how I understand the difficulty when a loved person is mired in misery – the temptation to be bucky-uppy is huge. I think that is just human nature, to try and look on the bright side. I don't mind admitting that I struggle with this all the time, being a pragmatic problem-solver by nature. Enjoy the snow and some bracing walks.

  18. Wish I could have muffins and tea with you. I could learn a lot about friendship from you, I'm sure. I loved reading this post. All your posts. Feels like I know you. Thanks.

  19. I really love this heartfelt post. It's hard to know how to offer comfort, but In my experience you can offer what 'you're good at doing'. So it could be cooking a meal, buying books, going for a walk or a listening ear. This is what has been the most meaningful to me when I've experienced loss in the past. I think you know exactly how to respond to your friend.

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