As a rule I have no problem with speaking, in fact I make a living from doing so. I love words, I love connecting and I love humans, so talking comes as naturally to me as breathing. Plus I’m an empath and I’m indecently comfortable with other people’s pain …but still when my friend Sharon asked me to speak at Compassionate Friends (a support group for bereaved parents) I completely panicked. Then I refused. I tried EVERYTHING to get out of it. (I even got a recently bereaved friend on my side to help plead my case). I felt utterly unqualified to speak to these parents. I still feel that way. I have NO IDEA what they have been through. What they go through every day. And I feel like a complete fraud at the thought of standing before them offering empty platitudes or trying to give them advice on something I know nothing about.
But Sharon has a lot of tenacity and resilience, and she is extremely persuasive (and a bit of a bully even) and so I ended up at Compassionate Friends, much against my will and still feeling like a fraud.
Although I know nothing about their pain, I have learned stuff from observing my friends Sharon, and Anko, and James and other bereft people who have crossed my path. And so I decided to tell them what they have taught me about their journey:
“I have learned from you that there is a desperate need to try to make sense of things, to understand what’s going on. And that sometimes having a clear image, gives you the words, language and a mental picture to describe to yourself and others what’s going on in your head and your heart. And I learned that this is an image (credited to an old man on the internet) that many of you can relate to:
Grief is like Waves
Grief, you all know, comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage and chaos all around you. Everything floating reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is hang on and hope to survive.
In the beginning, the waves are 100 meters tall and they crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. And you are drowning and disorientated and all you can do is hang on for dear life and try to stay afloat. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 meters tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function (sort of).
And you never know what’s going to trigger the waves. It might be a song, a picture, a flippin Facebook memory, a street intersection, a particular smell or the curve of a strangers cheek. It can be just about anything…and the wave comes crashing. But in between the waves, there is some semblance of life.
Somewhere down the line, (and it’s different for everybody), you find that the waves are only 80 meters tall. Or 50. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, arriving home after being away. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And sometimes, strangely, the anticipation of the grief is even worse than the reality of it. But when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, disorientated, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.
And the waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t even really want them to. But you learn that you’ll survive them. And that other waves will come. And that you’ll survive them too. Because you have survived the hardest thing there is.
And I have learned from you that salt water is a cure for many things, whether it’s sweat, tears or the sea.
My mother (who is 83 and has not lost a child, but she lost her brother in a car accident when he was 21, she’s lost her mother, her father, her husband and all of her closest friends) has taught me not to look away from people’s pain.
Her lesson was simple:
Don’t look away. Don’t look down. Don’t pretend not to see hurt.
Look people in the eye.
Even when their pain is overwhelming.
And when you are in pain, find the people who can look you in the eye.
You need to know you are no alone, especially when you are hurting.
(with acknowledgement to Brene’ Brown who teaches the same lesson)
And sometimes I think this lesson is a gift and a blessing and other times I’m not so sure. But either way I find that I am unable to look away. But, in closely observing your pain, by refusing to look away, I’ve learned stuff from you. Valuable stuff:
I have learned that your distress and suffering is impossibly hard for many of your close friends to deal with. They drift away, not because of a lack of care but because they simply can’t bear to sit still with the discomfort of your pain. They are unable to endure your suffering. They have no idea what to do or how to help.
On the other hand some virtual strangers surprise you with the extent of their empathy, their generosity of spirit, their astonishing acts of kindness. They refuse to look away and in doing so they allow you the comfort of seeing that you are not alone.
I have learned that people want to help in these times of loss and crisis, they want to do the right thing but they are often immobilized by panic that they may say or do something wrong. And so they often do nothing at all. There is no blueprint for navigating what to do when another human being is in the kind of pain that you have suffered. I think it may help to clearly tell them what you need.
So from observing your pain, I have learned:
Not to avoid you at the grocery store or in the school parking lot. And not to wait for the awkward chance meeting two weeks after the fact. I’ve learned to pitch up as soon as I hear your news.
I’ve learned not be afraid of intruding or behaving inappropriately. I have learned that if your world has just collapsed you don’t want people standing on ceremony.
I’ve learned to pitch up, to bring yellow roses or whiskey or chicken soup or dark chocolate or mad books of poetry.
To hug you tightly.
To take you for walks on the beach or in the mountains.
To hold your hands.
To make you tea or pour giant glasses of wine.
To feed you.
To take your other kid to the movies.
To do something practically useful. (The best example I have ever experienced was my friend Tom making a coffin in the garden on the day a dear friend’s husband passed. Not everyone can make a coffin anyone can produce a decent stew or wash the dishes).
I have learned not to tell you “I know how you feel”.
I have learned to NEVER start a sentence with “At least…….she is in a better place…. At least he didn’t suffer…. ….. at least you still have another child….” You can think and say those things, but not me or anyone else.
I’ve learned that it is probably best to say nothing or admit that there are no words and that I have absolutely no idea what to say.
I have learned that there really ARE no words and if in doubt I should just be quiet and listen.
I’ve learned that its ok to cry with you (but not to ugly cry – its not my tragedy and I cannot expect you to start comforting me).
I’ve learned that its ok to make you laugh. Laughing, crying, cursing and praying go rather well together in times of monumental loss.
I have learned not to overstay my welcome. But to keep coming back, the next day and the next month and the next year, because once is not enough.
I have always known (so I didn’t have to learn) not to say Condolences. That is not a real word. It makes me quite faint with rage.
I have also always known that your tragedy is not the will of God. This is an idiotic lie and if you need to assault people who say otherwise, I’m ok with that.
But I have learned that its better for you to give people the benefit of the doubt, they are all (believe it or not) doing the best that they can. Even the condolence crowd. I have learned from watching you not to waste the energy intended for my own healing by being hurt or angry or bitter or self-pitying if people disappoint me or look away. They will. Its not their fault. Really.
I may have done the same if you hadn’t taught me differently. You may have too, before you had experienced this grief.
And I have learned from you that self-pity is the most unhelpful of all emotions. And that it doesn’t serve you and you need all the help you can get right now. As DH Lawrence told us:
“I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.” (I’ve learned the theory but I don’t know about the practical – There is no way for eg. that I would drop frozen from a bough without a LOT of bitching and moaning).
One day in the future I know I will lose someone or something that I imagine I cannot live without. When that day comes I plan to keen and wail and grieve and draw myself into the fetal position rocking with agony and racked with loss. But I hope I will also, because you have taught me so, get up (soonish), nourish myself with chicken soup (of my own making if necessary), go to my healthy places of refuge, brew earl grey tea in my best tea pot, write in my journal even when I don’t want to, and plant aloes, walk my dog, pick up litter, run in the rain, swim in the sea, get my hair cut and my eye brows tinted. (I am unable to be courageous without eyebrows.) I hope, because you have taught me, that instead of withdrawing, I will articulate to God, my girl friends and my therapist exactly how I am feeling (which may be rage or fear or disbelief but hopefully not self-pity). And most of all I hope that like you I find humor and silliness when there is nothing to laugh at. I hope I will do all this because you have taught me that whatever or whomever I may lose, I am still of value. More importantly I hope I do this because you have taught me that I need to show my daughter the way. One day she will suffer loss too and I imagine that she will imitate her mother in dealing with it. So although I may prefer to wallow in profound self-pity and turn to cup cakes and Jack Daniels, this would be a less than an ideal act for her to follow. I have learned from you that I need to be her Codega.
“In Venice in the middle ages there was once a profession for a man (and possibly for some hardcore women too) called a ‘Codega’ – a fellow you hired to walk in front of you at night with a lit lantern, showing you the way, scaring off thieves and demons, bringing you confidence and protection through the dark streets.”
I discovered this paragraph in “Eat Pray Love” and was thrilled and charmed by the idea of a Codega, both figuratively and literally. I want to be one when I am big. I am grateful to my mother and to my friends, who are Codegas to many and who have taught and continue to teach me these lessons and show us all the way.
And since I have had the benefit of these lessons and because I have been taught by you to accept loss as an inevitable consequence of life and loving, and because there are never guarantees of a community that will not look away, I know that I owe myself a deep duty of care starting as soon as possible. And that duty involves developing discipline and fabulous routines and joyful places of refuge. And so we should write and paint and play music and plant stuff and exercise outdoors, and eat cupcakes only in moderation, sleep enough, try not to quaff gallons of wine or smoke crates of dope. We should cultivate a circle of friends with whom we can be both deranged and real. I have learned from you that I have a duty to myself and to those who depend on me to show the way. I have learned from you that although I may not want to be an adult, loss renders me an elder whether I like it or not.
And finally you have taught me that mothers don’t have the monopoly on suffering from the loss of a child, and that fathers shouldn’t be treated as second rate citizens in the world of grief and pain, and I’ve learned that people express grief differently and that anger is a legitimate expression of anguish too, and that there are no rules about how we are meant to grieve or for how long.
And you have taught me not to expect that my partner should fulfill all my needs when I am in pain. I should find someone else (I don’t mean another life partner, a mean a grief partner), in fact I should find as many of those as possible.
And I have learned from you that the second most unbearable pain, after that of losing a child, is watching the daily agony of your partner as he or she deals with that same loss. Sometimes the combination of the two becomes just too much to bear. I’ve learned that its ok to take your pain to someone else sometimes and cut your partner some slack. And to cut yourself some slack too when you need a break from his or her pain. And I’ve learned from you that God is able to comfort you too, but only if you allow him.