The 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.
We need to know we are no alone, especially when we are hurting.
This lesson is one of the greatest gifts of my life.”
My mom taught me this lesson too. Sometimes I think the lesson was a gift and a blessing and other times I’m not so sure. Either way I find that I am unable to look away.
My father died suddenly and unexpectedly on Father’s Day when I was a student. I adored him and I was, for a while, numb and reeling from the pain of his unexpected departure. I learned in those difficult months that my distress was impossibly hard for many of my close friends to deal with. They drifted away from me,not because of a lack of care but because they couldn’t bear to sit still with the discomfort of my pain. They had no idea what to do or how to help. On the other hand some virtual strangers surprised me with the extent of their empathy, their generosity of spirit, their astonishing acts of kindness. They refused to look away and in doing so they allowed me the comfort of seeing that I was not alone.Decades have passed since that time but I clearly recall exactly how they made me feel and the practical things they did for which somehow kept my family afloat. People want to help in times of sadness 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 pain but I thought I may give it a try. An idiots guide (if you like) to responding when someone is sick or hurt or grieving:
Most important of all: don’t avoid that sick or hurt or grieving person at the grocery store or in the school parking lot.Don’t look the other way. Don’t wait for the awkward chance meeting two weeks after the fact. Pitch up(briefly) as soon as you hear their news. Fear of intruding or behaving inappropriately is the enemy of authenticity and empathy. When your world collapses you don’t want people standing on ceremony. Promise. So just GO to them. Bring yellow roses or whiskey or chicken soup or dark chocolate or mad books of poetry. Hold them tightly. Take them for a walk on the beach or in the mountains. Hold their hands. Make them tea. Feed them. Take their kids to the movies. Do something practically useful. (The best example I have ever experienced was our friend Tom making a coffin in the garden on the day a dear friend’s husband passed. Not everyone can make a coffin but we can all produce a decent stew or wash the dishes). Do not tell them you know how they feel or try to trump their current pain with yours. Please,(and this is a deeply personal pet hate of mine) do not say “Condolences” unless you are well over 90. I mean WTF? What does that even mean? Its not a real word and it doesn’t feel even remotely authentic. When people I knew from my gym clasped their hands together, stared into the middle distance and offered me their “condolences” (like weird Dickens-style undertakers) at my father’s memorial it made me feel quite faint with rage. (I realise this was unfair and that people do the best they can. But this is just a heads up for avoiding future assault).
Do not EVER start a sentence with “At least…….they are in a better place….it was blessedly quick….you still have your health…..you still have another child….”. Do not presume to tell them that their tragedy is the will of God. This is an idiotic lie and if it causes you to be beaten it will be a richly deserved beating. It is probably best to say nothing or admit that there are no words and thatyou have absolutely no idea what to say. If in doubt just listen. Its ok to cry with them (but try not to ugly cry – its not your tragedy and you cant eclipse their pain with yours or expect them to start comforting you.)It’s ok to make them laugh. Laughing, crying, cursing and praying go rather well together in times of monumental loss. Don’t overstay your welcome. And then keep going back, the next day and the next month and the next year, because once is not enough.
When you are sick or hurt or grieving do not expect anyone to do this for you (unless you have supplied them with this guide in advance which is not a bad idea). It is unusual and is pure grace and a deep blessing if you are surrounded by a community who does not look away. So give people the benefit of the doubt, they are all (believe it or not) doing the best that they can. Even the condolence crowd.Do not waste the energy intended for your own healing by being hurt or angry or bitter or self-pitying when people disappoint you or look away. Self-pity is the most unhelpful (and unattractive) of all emotions. 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 really aspire to this but am making not much progress, sadly, in this regard. 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 will lose someone or something that I imagine I cannot live without. When this 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 get up (soonish), nourish myself with chicken soup (of my own making if necessary), go to my places of refuge, brew earl grey tea in my best tea pot, write, 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 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 I find humour and silliness when there is little to laugh at. I hope I will do all this because I know that I am of value. More importantly I hope I do this because I need to show my daughter the way. One day she will suffer a similar loss 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 less than an ideal act for her to follow. 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 paragraphin “Eat Pray Love” when I read it for the second time 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, Sharon and Claire who are Codegas to many and who have taught and continue to teach me these lessons and show us all the way.
And sinceI have had the benefit of these lessons and because I accept loss as an inevitable consequence of life and loving (although I will not anticipate it or obsess about it) and because there are never guarantees of a community that does not look away, I know that I owe myself adeep duty of care starting as soon as possible. And that duty involves developing discipline and fabulous routines and joyful places of refuge in the good times. And so I will write and exercise outdoors, eat cupcakes only in moderation, sleep enough, try not to quaff gallons of wine and have a circle of friends with whom I can be both deranged and real. We have a duty to ourselves and we have a duty to those who depend on us to show the way.