Fixated as I’ve been for the last month on getting an entry ready for a literary contest, I’ve not thought much about blogging. But in the midst of struggling over my story, I’ve had important encounters that made me realize how much others have to teach me, especially about loss and grief.
I’ll start with a shortened version of the Buddhist fable, the Mustard Seed. Unable to accept the death of her young son, a woman carried his body from house to house in her village begging for medicine to bring him back to life. Villagers referred her to the Buddha who told her to return to the same houses and collect a mustard seed from each one untouched by death. From the seeds she collected he would create a medicine to bring her son back to life. By nightfall, she knew that every house in her village had been touched by death and that impermanence was a universal truth.
In the past few weeks I’ve spent time with three people, two of them friends, who lost their spouses. From them I’m learning that each of us find our own ways to respond to loss and grief and that the process of recovery does not move in a straight line.
The one I didn’t know — a standup comedian named Patton Oswalt — was in town for an interview about his deceased wife’s true crime book. She was an investigative reporter obsessed with tracking down a serial killer/rapist in Northern California. Oswalt responded to his grief by begging his wife’s researcher, editor and others connected to her work to go through reams of notes and pages she’d already written and turn her consuming passion into a book, which was recently published. (“I’ll Be Gone in The Dark”) Most of us won’t have the means to make a loved one famous in death, so we must muddle through the situation as best we can.
About the same time I attended the event with Patton, I spent part of a day with two newly widowed friends and came away awed by their strength and the thinking processes they were going through as they began to manage their new lives.
One is making big changes already, which came as a surprise. I thought the experts advised the grieving to stick with the familiar for a while. But my friend gave up several long-time volunteer positions, is now taking a writing course and hopes to teach seniors to write poetry. She lights up when she talks about what she’s doing, a sign that the experts aren’t always right. The other friend is moving slower, taking on one new volunteer job — registering new voters — and continuing to travel, but on her own or with other friends.
What can friends do for those grieving ? Listening, not offering advice, being available and reaching out seem to be the best ways to help. Also, by avoiding saying or doing things that don’t help.
For many, grief makes it hard to get up in the morning. And despite our best efforts to keep friends up and moving around, sometimes the kindest thing is to leave them in place.
“If I don’t want to get up,” said one of the new widows, “if I don’t want to do anything, I give myself permission not to move.” However, that doesn’t mean she wants to be ignored. My peers had professional careers and are very independent. People like that find it hard to ask for help or even for company. They’ll say to themselves, “My friends are such busy people, I don’t want to bother them.” The sensible approach is to invite them to do things but not feel insulted if they say no.
Choose your words carefully. “How are you doing ?” “How are you feeling ?” “You’ve got another 20 years to live and enjoy life,” and “Time will help.” don’t help.
In the past I’ve wanted to avoid talking to friends who suffered losses, unsure about what to say and how to say it. Now I see it not only as an opportunity to offer support to them, but also to better understand an important stage of life.