I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is on grief. Nor if Emily Post has a chapter on what’s appropriate for the social networking age. But I know that my PhD in children’s literature and office roommate friend who has become my firm but soggy shoulder of late has said, “No one talks about it. Not like this. You should.”
In the preface to her latest collection of essays, entitled At Large and At Small, the gifted and award-winning writer Anne Fadiman discusses the finer points of essay genres while lamenting the degree to which the personal essay has become overly personal. She favors, instead, a familiar essay falling somewhere between stuffy and trite. She writes: “Today’s readers encounter plenty of critical essays (more brain than heart) and plenty of personal – very personal – essays (more heart than brain), but not many familiar essays (equal measures of both)… in other words, about the author but also about the world.”
In the last month I’ve had people ask: “So, how was L.A.?” Meaning: “How are you? How are you – really?” And they were sincere, willing to listen with time and attention because they cared more about us than they did the details of the response. And, in turn, I have given them honest, heartfelt replies: difficult, beautiful, rainy, overwhelming, intensely sad, deeply touching, full of grace and compassion, painful, heartening.
I’ve had other people ask: “So, did you get to do anything in L.A.?” And they mean: “I know you went to L.A. for a funeral, but did you do anything else while you were there that is more comfortable to talk about than grief and loss.” Others have asked if we saw anyone famous or if they’ve yet figured out the cause of death. Some couldn’t help themselves from pondering aloud whether or not there would be an autopsy, while others interjected that one should certainly be carried out.
What was beautiful about our week in L.A. was the outpouring of love we witnessed and experienced from friends and family and strangers and the community at large, from parents from the children’s school and friends of friends who cooked and visited, who brought food and waited patiently and were present, who distracted the children with stories and guitar lessons – who remembered what it was like to be a 13-year- old boy for a few hours despite being thirty-eight and famous. And when I reflect back on why the week was noticeably absent of insensitive, inane remarks or bad theology it was that in the face of such tragedy no one tried to make sense out of it. Or explain it. Or give it meaning.
It was unwanted. It was unfortunate. It was and is devastating. The source of all human suffering is in wanting things to be not as they are. In situations outside our control, we regain some of it to the extent we understand this truism.
There seemed to exist a collective awareness of this while we were there. That some things make no sense. To try to make sense of them is to insult the mystery that is inherent to life. We struggle against the mystery, rather than realizing that it is in surrendering to it that we find peace. There is wisdom in the ability to say, “I don’t know” and still be comfortable there.
Then there has been the silence. Both in its comfortable and uncomfortable forms. The late author and theologian Henri Nowen shared his wisdom of grief and the suitable use of silence in this way:
When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.
These friends know that there is healing in being present and listening. Whether it is listening to our silence or listening to the telling of our story and the sharing of our experience – when we are ready – understanding that talking about it doesn’t make us sad. We are already sad. Talking about it makes it real. Nothing good nor of real substance ever came through avoidance. We know you can’t fix it. But there is healing in listening. To ask us how we are isn’t going to remind us of our sorrow. It’s not as if we forget until you bring it up. But your asking does remind us that you care.
What does sadden me is that it bears pointing out that wondering whether there was fame or a coroner’s report or telling us that God had a plan or distancing oneself aren’t particularly helpful. But these are no less obvious than all the other sayings that have been collected over time and categorized as “what not to say” because at some point in the past someone said them. In times that require quiet comfort and support the misspoken word, while perhaps well intended, is better left unsaid.
Those that council the grieving recommend the following:
What to say to someone who has lost a loved one
It is common to feel awkward when trying to comfort someone who is grieving. Many people do not know what to say or do. The following are suggestions to use as a guide.
- Acknowledge the situation. Example: “I heard that your_____ died.” And then listen with compassion.
- Express your concern. Example: “I’m sorry to hear that this happened to you.”
- Be genuine in your communication and don’t hide your feelings. Example: “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”
- Offer your support. Example: “Tell me what I can do for you.” Offer practical assistance.
- Ask how he or she feels, and don’t assume you know how the bereaved person feels on any given day. Provide ongoing support.
Source: American Cancer Society and helpguide.org http://helpguide.org/mental/helping_grieving.htm
The honest answer is that grief is different for all of us and there is no right or wrong way to experience it. Tragic loss is not the same as anticipated loss, and anticipated loss is no less painful. I went through an angry period. Normal – I know. Sometimes Kalil Gibran’s poem “On Joy and Sorrow” is magnificent, particularly the passage where he says, “In your grief you will realize that which you weep for is your delight.” And other times I think Khalil Gibran can suck my big toe. Because grief and loss suck. To pretend otherwise is a Northern European Protestant form of denial that is therapy-inducing as it attempts in vain to smooth out all the horrifying wrinkles that are pain.
When a friend asked how I was feeling, I described the emotional weather as “foggy with a chance of unpredictable downpours.” As the anger began, I added thunderstorms to the forecast. I have come to regret every chirpy, cheerful quote or poem I have ever sent to my grieving friends. There is a time for those. But in the beginning isn’t the time. The most meaningful things are usually the smallest, that acknowledge both how much it hurts and how unwanted it is: the tender voice on the other end of the phone that said with genuine compassion, “Aw, Sweetheart, I know. I hate it too.”
I don’t think Martin Luther King, Jr. was talking about sorrow when he said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” But perhaps he was. To all those who have in large and small ways been present, whether in person or in spirit, who listened, who cried, or who were comfortably silent, who fed us and held us in our falling apart, who shared a kind word or thought or memory and who will never let us go, we are forever grateful.
Click here to listen to Simon and Garfunkle sing The Sound of Silence. Be sure to hear what Art Garfunkle says in his introduction to the song.
Post Script: “Equal parts brain and heart.” Anne Fadiman goes on to say how she believes the familiar essay is worth fighting for. I hope I’ve lived up to her expectations.
Dedicated to Mike Harden (1946-2010) who helped me find my voice.
Copyright © 2010 by Christina Caine. All rights reserved.