I came along later in my parents’ lives. So I have witnessed a lot of death. However, there was also a lot of happiness with close family, a great extended family of fun-loving and loving people, as well as a tight community of long-time family friends. Sadly, as I age those ranks decline.
I’ve been around for the loss of three grandparents, both parents, 12 aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, neighbours, friends’ parents and co-workers.
These losses have shown me that as a society we don’t know how to handle death. Some people get it, most don’t.
When you lose someone some people will rally to your aid and be magnificent. Others will disappear into the ether. Their disappearance makes you feel like the new leper. What happened? Where are they? Their deafening silence at a vulnerable time makes you question whether they ever cared for you or the deceased.
I have come to believe it’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they’re embarrassed. They don’t know what to say, so they hide from it and us.
In striving for something brilliant and insightful to say, many people inhibit themselves and what comes out is the ever-hurtful silence. How often do you hear someone say, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ Well, say that. And add the word ‘sorry’.
Tell the bereaved you’re sorry for their loss and/or the pain that loss represents. Ask if they need anything. Can you run an errand or make a phone call or bring over a meal. It doesn’t have to be big. Most times the bereaved will never take you up on your offer, so you’re safe. But at least you made an offer.
There is that old Biblical passage that’s spot on: do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
It’s not so difficult. If later on you don’t want to be ignored or have your family shunned, then do something now. If you’re so embarrassed that you can’t pick up a telephone or ring a doorbell or attend a funeral service, then send a note. It doesn’t have to be one of those lavish, overly-sentimental sympathy cards, but a plain card or even a stiff piece of paper folded over and stuck in an envelope that simply says ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ goes a long way to letting those left behind know they aren’t forgotten.
But for god’s sake get away from the usual platitudes. ‘They had a good life.’ Well, if it was that good, all the more reason for it to continue. ‘They’re in a better place.’ Bullshit. I’d rather them with me. ‘It was their time.’ Yeah, when’s yours?
Suggesting the deceased is out of pain is acceptable if you at least visited them during their illness or had some contact with the deceased or newly bereaved. You can remind the bereaved how lucky they were to have had the deceased in their life and how wonderful the deceased was. Maybe share a fun memory to show that the deceased had an impact on you.
Being supportive of the bereaved doesn’t mean be bossy or get on their case for “moving on”. It’s a sad time. Let people mourn. If they need to cry, let them. If they take to their bed, let them. It’s probably the first full sleep they’ve had in days, weeks, months or even years.
Today so many of us have been long-term caregivers, on call 24/7, that we’re stressed and exhausted. Not that we regret a second of it. One of the greatest luxuries in life is being there for those we love.
Caregivers have the energy and attention span needed to provide physical care, give comfort and make all manner of stressful decisions. Only when that function has been removed does the bereaved start to realize they have been functioning on adrenaline. Now when the phone rings they don’t jump because it’s not bad news, it’s just someone who wants to talk. Now they can actually sleep through the night because they don’t have to keep an ear out for the ill person or worry about missing an important telephone call.
And when I say let them mourn, I mean back off offering advice unless asked, because we don’t need your permission to do anything. It’s our life and we will take as long as we need to adjust to our new reality.
I am disinclined to talk about ‘moving on’. That’s too shallow for the experience. It’s about redeveloping and redefining your life. The loss of a loved one shouldn’t keep anyone from having another stage in life.
If you’re the bereaved, understand that people mean well, but unless they’ve experienced the death of someone close they don’t get it. My advice: don’t worry about them not getting it. It takes too much energy. Save your energy for you. You probably don’t yet realize how exhausted you are physically and emotionally.
And people don’t understand that the range of emotions can be wishing you had died too, to anger at those who take any and everything for granted, to annoyance with those who think a store clerk’s tone ruined their day, and even a certain jealousy at hearing laughter. What right have others to be happy when you’re so sad? That does pass. Somewhat.
One of the dumb things people ask is whether you expected the death. 99.9% of the time you didn’t. Why? Because we live with hope. If people can recover from a 24-year coma or walk after being paralyzed, why can’t something miraculous happen to our loved one?
As a bereaved person you also have to understand that others are going to project their wishes on you. Maybe they’re busy and hope if you get busy or quickly ‘move on’ they won’t have to spend as much time with or worrying about you. As I mentioned earlier there is that embarrassment about death; so the longer you mourn, the more embarrassed others become and therefore the more impatient they become.
My advice for the friends of the bereaved is to be around after the funeral. Right after death, the bereaved are faced with lots of decisions and details. It’s a time full of people offering condolences. And as quickly as people appear they disappear, leaving the bereaved with a double void: loss of a loved one and no one to talk to. If you want to be a friend, show up then.
When you do talk to the recently bereaved, don’t get on their case to make changes in their life. People have to move at their speed, not yours. Other than quickly getting rid of clothes, no major decisions should be undertaken for the first year. The bereaved have to get through all the anniversaries, holidays and other events in their typical life calendar to see how they feel and get stronger. They need to make decisions based on strength and not act out of weakness. If the bereaved act too quickly they run the risk of hiding from emotions and masking what is going on. Not dealing with the emotional roller coaster can dog you for the rest of your life, impeding any chance for future happiness.
It’s not that the pain goes away – or that you want it to – it’s how you learn to adapt and adjust your life to this new stage and status. You may be single for the first time in your adult life. That’s a shock. I’ve noticed that a great many Baby Boomers are alone.
Many professionals opted not to have children, so we don’t have children to fall back on as a core family unit. Many Baby Boomer professionals find themselves single (whether never married, divorced, widowed/widower) only to realize that with the death of their parents they are cut off from having someone always have their back and that there is no one left to love them so unconditionally. If we have siblings there’s a strong chance they’ll have a family (spouse/companion, kids) who naturally will have to be their primary focus. So many Baby Boomers and elderly survivors are left to float free in a big world. It’s like living in emptiness. Who would you call if you locked yourself out? Or the car breaks down? Or you need help reaching something on the top shelf? Or to tell if a painting or the Christmas tree is straight? Who will make medical decisions for you, if you can’t? And who would notice if you don’t wake up?
Remember: people truly mean what they say, but that doesn’t make them right. What you feel is what is right for you. Give yourself permission to do what you want, not what others think you should do. You will sort things out when you are ready.