7 Ways to Care for the Grieving

I’ve alluded to this before, but I’ll say it point blank: from January 2014 to June 2015, 9 people in my life passed away. They died of heart failure, blood clots, burns, young and old age. Plus the murderers of a childhood friend were sentenced. And a tree died. Some of my dreams died. My roommate’s dog started to die but we didn’t know it yet. It was kind of a lot.

Over that year and a half, I got pretty good at telling people why I’d be out of town again, at hiding that I was still grieving (or grieving again), at visitation small talk, at selecting photos for slide shows, at giving warm hugs without sobbing, and at thanking strangers for coming.

Lately, I’ve watched various people in my life experience intense loss. So here are 7 ways to care for a grieving person, learned from being the one grieving.

Say something. More to the point, don’t say nothing. Avoid platitudes, but a platitude is better than nothing. Say you’re sorry. Ask me about a favorite memory of the person. Don’t ignore it because you’re nervous or uncomfortable. That’s horribly selfish. Don’t be afraid to bring up my loved one or say their name. Even if it just happened. Even if it was two weeks ago and you just found out. Even if it’s been months.

Listen. Listen to what I say. Listen to what I don’t say. Let me guide the tone and topic for a week or so, especially when the funeral or death comes up. And if you conveyed your sympathy, I thanked you, then I started talking about work or asking about you, don’t keep dragging our conversation back to my grief. Maybe I really don’t want to delve those depths right now.

Don’t harp. I’m not the only person who has lost someone and neither are you. Mention that a family member died but don’t tell me the whole saga of your grandmother’s slow demise unless I ask multiple questions. Your harping makes me feel like I should be comforting you. Your grief is no less legitimate than mine, but mine is also quite new. Please don’t make my pain about you.

Do something tangible. What you’ll do will depend on how well you know me. My roommate would vacuum and tidy up while I was gone and be available when I got home in case I wanted company or a distraction. When I did want to talk, she asked how my family was doing, if the service went okay, if everyone behaved well. (That could be it’s own tip: don’t cause drama. Pity it ever needs saying.) The day we had to put the dog to sleep, a friend texted and said he wanted to bring us KFC for lunch.

Take initiative. Saying, “Can I bring dinner by tomorrow? I’ll leave it on your porch” is way better than “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” A dozen other people have said the same thing to me, and I don’t know that they all meant it. Assuming you did mean it, no matter what I need or how much I need it, I don’t want to inconvenience you. But if you take the initiative, I can either say “Thank you” or “Would you mind waiting until next week?” or “I really appreciate that, but I’d rather get coffee with you and talk. Could we do that instead?”

Pain is pain. My friend told me this nine years ago. Her fiance had just called off their wedding and she couldn’t understand why a lady in her church, who had recently suffered a miscarriage, had reached out to her to offer encouragement. “Your loss is so much greater than mine,” my friend had said to the woman. And the woman had answered, “Pain is pain.” All pain is not the same, and maybe you don’t understand why I’m grieving so much over the death of my roommate’s dog or the falling of that tree. Just know it was important to me, and so the loss is painful.

Don’t tell me I’m grieving wrong. You aren’t helping by criticizing how much or little you saw me cry. Maybe I’m much better at acting okay than you think. Maybe this is my third funeral in two weeks and I’m a bit numb. Maybe I wanted the woman in the casket to hold my babies and I just saw how much yours have grown. I’m working through this is my own way. You don’t have to understand to respect it.

Dream: Marked “Undesirable”

Given the events of the past week and months, I have hesitated to post this. I am relating an actual nightmare I had in January but that I didn’t have enough perspective on at the time to be able to write. I’m still not sure I do, or that this is the best time to post. However, I am doing so in order to put words to fears I have and others may share, and by so doing to lessen their power. I am also sharing my response to the events and policies which have given rise to these fears. In this week of Passover, this week before Easter, I am making a commitment to myself with all of you as witnesses.

Trigger warning: Holocaust references and imagery, violence against people with disabilities

I don’t know what to make of it.

I had a piece of green tape stuck to my right shoulder. It was dark green, matte, about as wide as electrical tape with ends where it had been torn. It was stuck so tightly to the cloth of my sky blue floral summer dress that a hand must have painfully gripped my shoulder, the tape underneath, for a glacial and dangerous moment. Four inches long, it stretched from below my clavicle, up and over the top of the dress, just past the seam connecting the front and the back panels. The symbols on the tape looked like a semicolon, a button-sized black circle above another button with the curl of a tail.

The lines in the rough hand had creased the tape fractionally, as had my dress, but the semi-colon accounted for both, like a typed wink two inches long. Others in my group of other green-matte-tape people had wide colon eyes or other halves of emoticon faces. But we all wore the green tape. And we were all sitting in a rough knot of lunchroom-style tables with round seats attached that aren’t supposed to swivel but do. And we were all being held at gunpoint.

In the way of dreams, I just appeared there, knowing things without having learned or been told them. We were free to move around a little in our group, even to talk quietly. The people in uniform holding guns were fascist soldiers, and there would be no legal recompense if they shot me, or all of us. It could happen in a moment.

We were green, meaning mental illness, and the symbols indicated which illness with which we’d been diagnosed. Mine semi-colon meant depression. There were other groups at other tables but we were all “undesirables.”

We were on a cruise ship’s top deck, in the hollowed out slope of what would have been a pool. We were chugging along on a beautiful day, clear skies and smooth sailing, though the surface is a little choppy.

The fascists were standing at intervals around the rim of the waterless pool. We were waiting for their orders to either release us into the population below decks or to kill us. The orders might be jumbled. We might be moved later. We had no idea.

But we knew some of us would die, our illnesses deemed too severe or too noticeable or too shameful according to the State. Some of us had already been killed. A group of soldiers forced one group, the whole group, to line up on the edge of the deck so they’d all fall overboard when they were shot.

A woman, about my age, slid into the seat next to mine. As if this really is the lunch period at high school, I’m sitting in the corner seat, not looking at the fascists behind me or the empty tables between us. I’m eying the fascists in front of me instead, careful not to make eye contact. The woman who joins me is Asian and sits taller than I do, though I don’t know if she’s actually taller. She had an open face, deceptively so, and bent toward me in a mirror of my crumpled posture.

I can’t remember the exact words she whispered to me, but it amounted to this: we have to get out. I had two friends in the group, a married couple. They’d try to slip away together, but the rest of us in this escape cohort—not the whole group—would try to slip away one by one. We’d have to find a map belowdeck to find the right floor, but the plan was to meet in the kitchen of the restaurant on the very back of the ship. There was a balcony and an oven that (dream-logic) we would push out of its place, off the boat, into the water, holding on to it by straps so we’d float along with it and be saved.

We knew we might not all make it. We knew everyone in the group wouldn’t.

I did slip away, though I expected a bullet in my back or chest at any moment. When an annoyed soldier sprayed bullets into the group I was standing in, I pretended to be shot, clutching my stomach as I went limp. While the soldiers argued and the toed a few people over with their black boots, I rolled, then crawled, then ran away.

I hid the green tape with my hair. Barefoot, I crept in stairwells, searched for safe passages, and memorized the map. Once, I ran through the empty casino toward the maze of cabins, air smokey and thick, a riot of dings and whirls covering the shouts and footfalls behind me. Later, I had to climb up to the eleventh deck to avoid a suspicious guard. I burst from the stairwell and encountered four people I knew in middle and high school. Oblivious of what I was running from and what was happening just one deck above, not noticing my sweat or terror, they asked me if I knew a good place to tan. Not sure if they could be trusted, not sure if they were in trouble themselves, I tried to warn them that it was too hot on the pool deck. They didn’t understand and took off at a gleeful gallop, and the hallway was too full to call after them or to warn them more directly. I don’t know if I was sending them to their deaths or not. The State had decided there was nothing wrong with them, and they believed there was nothing wrong anywhere.

I don’t know what to make of it. Not yet. Maybe never. But it isn’t hard to see my fears manifesting. I see the lack of compassion, the lies in the current government. Just yesterday the White House Press Secretary spouted what amounted to Holocaust denials from behind the Presidential seal. And it’s not hard to see how selfish and privileged my fear of being one of the undesirables was. And I haven’t been diagnosed; I don’t know if I should be or if I will be at some point.

How has my internalization of ableism manifested here? Am I so ableist that I fear a diagnosis, and of being branded? Or do I feel solidarity with mentally ill people? Or am I just so afraid that all my Holocaust studies will be acted out before my eyes? What am I not doing that I should to support Jewish, Muslim, disabled, and other marginalized communities?

This is Holy Week, during which Christians remember Jesus’ final week before his arrest on false charges, torture, abandonment by friends, betrayal by the justice system, and then his slaughter. Only later do we celebrate his resurrection, rejoicing that goodness and love cannot be killed.

I follow an innocent Middle Eastern Jew who was murdered after a sham trial.

Dear Lord, show me the innocents I need to help protect. Make me stand up when I see violence and injustice around me. Give me courage and passion as I speak against the dangers others face. Heal, and please let me help. Most of all, forgive me. Forgive us.

Early Morning Prayers

I don’t like mornings. I’d prefer not to see most hours of them. Springing forward and having to get up that morning in the dark is a mechanical sort of torture for me. No hope. No mercy. Just darkness every morning for weeks. I’ve been this way almost since I was born (I made my appearance just after 7am, so I like to say that it was the only time I willingly got up early).

When I was in middle school, my brother (even more squinty-eyed in the mornings than I am) declared that even God wasn’t up yet and he didn’t see why he should have to be up either. I adopted the phrasing, but I did sometimes have such terrible early mornings (fights breaking out near me in the school gym, betrayal by a once-friend, arguments, missed homework, word of new terrorist attacks, rumors of wars and battles and deployments, flat tires, deaths) that I have been glad to know that God does not, in fact, sleep.

In time, I came to imagine that God the Father has passed off those dreadfully chipper mornings to God’s inexplicably early-rising Son. And so, like the Greek celestial siblings Helios (sun god), Selene (moon goddess), and Eos (dawn goddess), the parts of the trinity pass their duties from one to the next based on the hour in the Eastern Time Zone of North America. At times, surely, they are all three awake (it’s 6am somewhere on this planet) and I can talk to any of them and the Bible tells of all three doing unique things in the same scene at the same time. But on bitterly cold, grey-blue mornings on the bus or not-quite-dozing in my mother’s little car, I imagined those prayers going to answering machines while God the Father took five more minutes and the Holy Spirit grunted over a mug of coffee while Jesus took careful notes.

Now then. About two years ago my roommate and I felt called to foster children. We went from single friends excited about Shark Week and trying to catch up on our respective weekly Bible studies to temporary mothers of three traumatized children under three years old. I don’t know when the last time that baby had had a full stomach—he ate for two days as if it’d been weeks—and the older boys hadn’t been vaccinated since they were each nine months old. Their legs were also so badly bowed that I worried they might jump and their femurs just snap.

Putting them to bed the night they came to us was horrific. All three screamed—screamed—for two hours. No amount of cuddling or patting or shushing or singing soothed them. One would calm, then another, then the third would scream and start the others up again. Even putting them all in different rooms, they could hear the others crying and screamed in solidarity. Even the baby. Separating the older two proved to be a bad idea because they were afraid and had likely always slept together. Still, eventually, one by one, they screamed and cried themselves to sleep.

It took my roommate and I a bit longer to drop off ourselves: we lay on the couches in the living room under blankets scrounged from other parts of the house, clutching the baby monitors to our ears at the least rustle, reaching a leg from beneath the blankets to rock the two-month old in his bassinet every time he woke or fussed in his sleep.

At 6am, I was feeding the baby. It was dark and I hurt all over from physical and emotional exhaustion. I squeezed by eyes shut to try to pray, but that hurt, too, so I relaxed them. The pre-dawn grey light filtered through the slits of the blinds behind me and, for the first time, I felt thankful for morning. The easy light. The gradual way God brings the world into wakefulness. I sent the simplest snatches of prayers to whichever member of the Trinity had early-morning duty.

After a few minutes of “Thank you for this little boy,” “Thank you they slept so long,” “Please let him fall back asleep,” “Everything hurts,” “Please get us through,” “Thank you for this moment,” “It’s so early,” and similar prayers, I found myself grateful the Spirit is up, too, interpreting these bare words and literal groans into something sensible. I imagined Jesus on his knees and leaning against a Gethsemane rock, face aloft, attentive and squinting one eye, listening to my prayer, confused. Then I pictured him reaching over one sandaled foot to nudge the Spirit awake. The Spirit jerks and his mouth falls open before his eyes do, already interpreting my prayers to Jesus, who’s face relaxes.

With that image, I rocked the baby and opened my connection to the Spirit, focusing on the tightness in my upper back, the aching behind my eyes, the pulling at my scalp, sharing each with the Spirit. By this I believe the Spirit told Jesus all I hope for, how worn down I am, how afraid. I felt love radiating back to me, and the comfort of Someone just listening, understanding.

By the end of that day, the boys were with different families, my roommate and I were two single women watching Shark Week once again, exhausted and far behind where we should have read for the week’s Bible studies.

Though that morning two years ago was a meaningful prayer time for me, I haven’t tried to replicate it. Part of this, of course, is because mornings are terrible. But I think it’s also because I’m not used to praying in the dark. Darkness is for sleeping and stargazing and spy movies. We feel like we’re doing something we shouldn’t or slacking off if we aren’t praying with our eyes shut at a florescent-lit conference table or beside the brightest lamp in the living room (conveniently placed by the squishiest armchair, of course). Frankly, we feel like we’re wrong if we pray with our eyes open, too.

Despite my private jokes, though, God doesn’t need to be awakened and God doesn’t trisect God’s self to lessen the load around the clock. God neither nudges a part of the Trinity awake nor needs a poke in the ribs from me. Literally, any place and any environment is a good place to pray. You might need a bright lamp to read your Bible or journal prayers, and you may need some sunlight to help keep you awake, yet darkness is also a fine place to pray. Dawn and day and night and twilight and many other hairsplitting terms for mere moments on the clock can describe a moment you need to pray, an opportunity you may or may not take to pray.

This morning, as I read in Matthew 3 of Jesus’ baptism, I’m praying for those three boys again, two years older, who I held on the worst day of their lives.