Tuesday, November 27, 2007

On grieving and abiding

Tertia started this thing a couple of days ago where she asked a number of bloggers who have experienced loss of some kind to talk about grieving and how to approach a grieving friend. Go read them all, I can wait.

At first I didn't think I could have anything to add. I mean every one of the guests of honor has pointed out exactly why the stupid platitudes are stupid. So why keep wasting electrons? And yet, I felt like there was something in the air, something that the loss bloggers understood instinctively, but did not articulate. Because it is so a part of who we are now, this understanding. In matters of education, concepts that are routinely not articulated because they are so much a part of the foundational understanding of the field that experts often forget that it is possible to not know or understand these concepts are said to fall into an expert blind spot. I guess I am presumptuous enough to think I can illuminate our expert (a dubious flipping distinction if I ever saw one) blind spot. So here goes.

We hear time and again that people say stupid shit because they don't know what to say. That they say stupid shit because they want to help, because they feel badly for us. Um, yes, maybe, sort of. It is my contention that stupid shit is generally about making the situation seem less sucky than it is ("at least you are young-- you can always have another" anyone? Yes, because my children are much like trading cards, and I can surely live without the damaged one). Or making it seem like it had to be this way ("it's all G-d's plan." That G-d of yours is rather a sadist, don't you think?), or that it is better that it is this way. Many other lovely sentiments have been covered by the original group of bloggers in Tertia's circle, so I will leave the recitation alone. I will sum it up by saying that I believe that people say stupid shit to make themselves, and not the grieving person, feel better. About the unfairness of the universe. About this being OK. They want it to be ok. Or they want to "fix it."

But here's the deal, here's the thing that we don't articulate enough because we know it too well. Ready? OK. Grief is what happens when nothing can be fixed. We grieve because it can no longer be fixed. Dead babies, dead husbands, dead parents, dead friends, they don't come back. And even if you have another baby, marry again, or end up with a supportive step-parent or a new close and dear friend, they, each of them, is a different person. Not the one you lost. Not a replacement. Parents of special needs children can't have back what they lost either. They build a new life, learn to set different milestones for achievement, but they can't have their ideal normal back. None of us can. This is why we grieve, because it can't be fixed. It's the forever of it that is so daunting.

So what's a friend to do? Abide with us. (I heard that word before, read it most likely, somewhere in the IF blogosphere. And then Julia Uncommon signed her email to me that way, "abiding with you," and it just summed up all the kind things she said before, helpful, thoughtful things, explained why it was easy to hear her, why it was such a relief to have someone say these things to me.) Just be with us. Don't try to fix it. Don't tell us it is not as bad as it could be. Don't tell us it's ok. It's not. This is why we grieve. And yes, I know it's hard to see us suffer. And you want to do something. Well then, Snickollet has a lovely list. The genius of it is that it doesn't minimize the forever, it is not trying to fix the thing that will never be fixed. It simply is something you can do to help your friend walk this shitty grief road (that happens to run right along the life road-- this is why this practical stuff is so great).

I've talked about this stuff before, about how we don't get into each other's faces about what or how to feel, about how we abide. So if your friends are grieving, abide with them. It's the least, and the most, you can do.


niobe said...

Reading your post made me think that it's not only about what you can do (or not do) for a grieving friend, but what you, as the person who herself is grieving, can do for yourself.

Personally, I silently recite all the platitudes that I don't like other people to say and I find that many of them actually make me feel better. I don't want anyone else to say "everything happens for a reason," but if I can say it to myself -- and believe it -- it does help a little. YMMV.

But the your concept of abiding works for the friends of the griever as well as the griever herself. When you're very, very sad, sometimes all you can do is sit and bear your grief, realizing that you can't make it go away, that you may not even be able to do much at the moment to lessen it. And the act of accepting that there's nothing you can do, of not trying to fight your sorrow any more, can itself be healing.

meg said...

I like this "abide with us" concept.

Taking help and comfort: it's something I'm not very good at--even though I'm on the grief end of things. I don't really want people around me or having to deal with any part of this. But, I think letting someone walk this road with me (in my case an eight lane highway!), might really help.

Reading these suggestions has been pretty helpful for me, because even though I'm grieving, I still have no idea what I should or shouldn't be doing or asking for.

Beruriah said...

Thank you, Julia.

I have said before that I do believe many of the stupid comments come from people wanting to feel better themselves. That they say it because "they don't know what to say" doesn't cut it for me, because in fact it hurts almost as much to hear that as it does to hear the comment in the first place. Why emphasize that I am so beyond the pale? That I have suffered a loss simultaneously so big for some that they don't want to face it, and so small for others that they deny it matters? What's wrong with saying nothing if you don't know what to say? Not silence, reticence. Open yourself up and be willing to follow the lead of the grieving person. Try to learn to be a person who respects others, without thinking you hold some cosmic wisdom that they don't.

And bring them some veggie lasagna while you're at it.

Snickollet said...

Lovely. You are so right that people say stupid things to make themselves feel better. I try to turn people's comments into what they are *really* trying to say. For example, when people say to me, "I don't know how you do it," I try to hear, "I admire your strength." Or when people say that things happen for a reason, I try to hear that they to help relieve my pain. It's tiring, but it helps me a bit.

Thanks for sharing your perspective on grieving. I've learned so much from you in this post and many others.

Magpie said...

Lovely post. Moving and true.

Bon said...

...and reading this, i realized it's the people who have been willing to simply abide with me, check in on me, let me know they're there, that i am not angry at.

everyone else? yeh, not so good.

i'm off to go follow those links. thanks for this, Julia.

christina(apronstrings) said...

lovely. and i'm sure i learned something.
people do say things to make themselves feel better. this is such an awful thing to say...but is too relevent not to mention. as a former prosectuor let me tell you a sick secret. prosectuors do not want women on jurys in rape cases. because they will blame the woman every time. they'll blame her for what she was wearing, where she was, who she was, how she walked, etc. Because blaming her, means that it won't happen to them if they don't do those things.
And they have no idea that they are victim blaming. So, at least it's not intentional.
And i think that's the case most of the time. But it sucks.
I was once a nanny for a child whose mother was dying of cancer. And we all knew it. The crap that people said to her was amazing. *If* they said anything. She told me that about 75% of her friends just quit talking to her. How awful.
That experience and others has made me want to advocate for high school classes for how to deal with people when they are suffering from a loss or an illness. Because obvioulsy it's not something that most people know how to do.
I LOVE your 'abide with me' theory. LOVE it.

Julia said...

Thanks, all.

Niobe, I agree completely about applicability to self. And about what you say to yourself. That is much different than anyone else saying it, because noone else has the right.

Meg, I think you should ask for what you are comfortable asking for. And accept more than that. :)

Snick, you are a gracious person. For me, whether I can hear those things depends a lot on who is speaking and what else they have said or done. I am picky that way. :)

Christina, it is pretty awful, but I have no trouble believing it. Same thing that is at play when people try to tell us all these reasons our babies are dead-- to delineate why it can't happen to them. Because the world where it can happen to them is too scary. It is also awful about that mother. Chicken shits, those "friends" of hers. It's not contagious, the dying, or even cancer.

Tash said...

Interesting. I would go one further: they say stupid shit not just to make themselves feel better, but because they are in fact SCARED SHITLESS. It's not just that they're own little universe exploded, it exploded with fear, OMG, this shit really happens to people. And if it happens to someone you know, well, one degree and it could be you. I also think that's why they avoid contact (my first trip back to Bella's music class, the women literally moved away, as though it was contagious and their children could all just drop dead on the floor right there).

Frankly, the best stuff said to me was by friends who had some experience. Friend who lost both parents at a young age. Friends who had had multiple miscarriages. Friend who lost her husband. And frankly, what I most appreciated, was not the people who said "how are you, what can I do," but the people who said that MONTHS LATER understanding that I was still in need of support.

Love the "abide with us." Anyway, thanks for calling all to my attention in a lovely post.

Carole said...

This is so well said. Thank you for writing it. You have put into words what I haven't been able to.

The Town Criers said...

I think this is a gorgeous, aching post. That will educate many. I think you did verbalize it.

I hope everything goes well next week. I'm sending many good thoughts there.

Amelie said...

This is a very important point. Perhaps we, as a society, are too focused on fixing things instead of accepting them sometimes. Especially if fixing is no option.
There are neighbors who have never said a word about my mom's death. They are the same age, perhaps it scares them. To me, this ignorance is worse than saying something stupid. I find it comforting to think that she is in a better place now, without pain, without cancer. But perhaps, like Niobe, I would not be happy to be told this by others.
Also, the limits of the griever should be accepted. If I do not want to talk about it at some given moment, that has to be ok. But if you abide with me until later when I am ready to talk, that would be great.

Lori said...

This post is so perfect, and well said. It is also so true.

It's funny because I was listening to a woman speak yesterday who in one area of her life happens to be a therapist in private practice. She said that one of the biggest reasons she thinks therapists make such big bucks for a job that by all outward appearances looks rather simple, is because it is truly so difficult to just sit and BE with someone who is struggling and in terrible emotional pain. It is the same reason that so many people need to seek out a therapist in the first place. We are not very good at "abiding" and so we have to pay someone to give us just that.

Ashleigh said...

Yes. Just yes. Thank you for writing this.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. Thank you. My best friend died twenty years ago (in my arms) and his father passed away (just three months after his wife) last week. That whole little family that I grew up with is now gone.

I couldn't put my own feelings into a comfortable place. I loved his parents too, but knew that part of what I feel now is the painful memory of losing him and being in that place where there was just nothing that could be fixed.

I need to abide with myself. Thank you for clarifying that for me.


wannabe mom said...

thanks for this. it's so true.

i would take anything that anyone offered (to sit, to feed us, to go shopping for us, whatever), but i wouldn't ask for it. if it showed up at my doorstep, i would let it in. the "if you need anything just call" really got to me after a while. we also had the three-week casserole parade, then nothing, even now, a year later.

and now for my point. the people i don't hate are the ones who stuck with us, called monthly, asked how we were doing, and most of all, didn't try to fix anything.

Bea said...

Well said. Thanks for saying it.


Trish said...

What a bittersweet post.
I completely concur, though I never could have expressed it as well.

After my last miscarriage, there is one friend who sticks in my brain as having truly been there more than anyone.

His girlfriend of more than 10 years had died of breast cancer only a few days before. I was quite literally having my miscarriage at her funeral.

He didn't even know I'd been pregnant.. and I certainly wasn't going to add to his troubles.

When I missed work, he contacted me to ask where I'd been, and I was honest. Since I was off work, I spent a day making food for him. And one day he came over and just sat with me for a few hours. He asked about the baby.. about what happened.. said he was sorry.
We talked about his girlfriend.. We shared our sorrow.

But that was only a bit of the time. The rest of it- we just sat.. It was the most comforted I felt in weeks.. Just him being there.. the "it's okay to be sad" was unspoken by both of us.. But I know for me, it was very felt.

he was abiding with me... and I with him.

SeaStar said...

Powerful and important post. "Abide" is one of my favorite words. I chant it in my head when things have gone wrong and it helps me be still and present. I agree that people act out of fear when horrible things happen. We want to believe there are rules and if we act right terrible things won't happen to us (just world theory) or if htey do, there's some ind of cosmic reason. It is very hurtful when we fall back on this kind of protectionist thinking in the presence of someone for whom the bottom has fallen out. all of us have enough tendecy to second guess anyway without the implied blame in comments ostensibly intended to help. And the abandoners, they are protecting themselves too by simply fleeing. Not helpful! So yes, Abide.

Lori said...

I read this post the first time and it really stayed with me. I have made a conscious effort to abide with people as they grieve ever since.

Miss Conception said...

Thank you for this post. I lost three babies in less than five months this year (after 8 years of infertility) and I barely know how to begin to grieve. Reading posts such as this one gives me a sort of permission to grieve in my own way. Thank you for this.
Abiding with you...

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