It recently struck me that at 32, I am now the oldest woman in my family. I’d like to think that this makes me some sort of expert on loss and grief, and that I will know exactly what to do and say when someone in my life experiences a loss. Within a year of my mother’s death, a close friend lost her brother, another friend lost her dad, and a handful of friends lost a handful of loved ones. I always reached out to them, always tried to do the right thing, the compassionate thing. Let me say this clearly: I’m still never quite sure what to do.
No one ever is. It is so heartbreaking to watch someone you love lose someone, and you are left feeling so helpless and so small. What can you do, as one person, to help ease their pain, give them comfort, and make sure they can just make it to the next day? In such a terrible time, what is the “right” thing to do?
What I do know is this, the only wrong thing to do is nothing at all.
When someone you love dies, the hole that is left in your life and your heart is so unbearably huge, and the truth is that many acts of kindness can get lost in the sadness of it all. I wouldn’t be able to tell you who sent me a card when my mom finally lost her long and awesomely difficult battle with cancer. I can tell you that each time I went to the mailbox (or each time a friend went for me), there was love and kindness waiting for me.
And I will never remember how my laundry got done, dinner got made, or the oil got changed in my car. I can only tell you that it happened, because people who loved me more than I may ever know stepped in to help me when I could not help myself.
My next door neighbor, who I knew only casually, quietly mowed my lawn on the weekend that I left town for Mom’s memorial service. He continued to mow it countless times during my visits to my Dad’s house in the months that followed her death. My friend, who would lose her brother just months after I lost my mom, let me lean on her, talk it out with her, and sometimes scream about the unfairness of it all. The man who would become my husband did the simplest and best thing he could do, which was to just hold me and let me cry and grieve and cry some more.
I promise you this: if you reach out with love and compassion, you are doing the right thing.
When someone you love suffers a loss, everything is “the right thing to do.” Call them, send a card, babysit their kids or pets, bake a plate of gooey, decadent chocolate chip cookies and put them on a disposable plate so they don’t have to wash it, or remember who to give it back to.
Continue to do these things even after you think they are “ok.” You will sense if they want you to be closer, or if they need a little more space. And if you can’t sense it, it is ok to ask.
People treat grieving people like toddlers, and often avoid asking questions or mentioning “the awful thing” for fear that it will upset them. Sometimes people end up avoiding the grieving person altogether, terrified that they will say or do something that will bring them to tears. But the problem with that is so obvious that we all miss it – grieving people need to be allowed to be upset. They need to hear the name of their loved one, and be allowed to feel and do whatever they need to, with friends and family around them to support them.
There is an odd beauty in the grieving process, and participating in that with love and support is one of the most amazing gifts we can give and receive. You will not say the perfect magical words, you will not make their pain disappear. What you will do is offer them a little bit of hope and light in an otherwise impossible time. And that is definitely the right thing to do.