There is no time limit on grief.
These words came to me on my 31st birthday four months after my 25 year old brother had died from cancer. My beloved, yet mostly pragmatic, Grandmother Isabelle had called to wish me a Happy Birthday and had discovered that I had been crying all day. “Alayne, enough with the crying already,” she said, in what I imagine now, an attempt to be helpful.
There Are No Words That Move Time
To be helpful. We always feel the need to do something to ease burden, to alleviate pain. But when someone is grieving a loss, there are no words that move time. And time is the only thing that nudges grief along its sad and devastating path.
Deep loss is sad beyond words. I have learned over time that there are three ways people deal with someone who has lost someone.
- Not saying anything
- Saying the wrong thing
- Saying the right thing
People often don’t know what to say so they don’t say anything.
They either avoid the conversation all together or gloss over the elephant in the room. Perhaps people feel like this is the best way to be helpful- to pretend that life goes on thinking that by bringing up the obvious, it keeps the wound open and oozing. Perhaps it is helpful to avoid the topic and talk about the weather or some mundane topic, some people may think.
Then there are the people who say the wrong thing.
We have all said some cringe worthy remark that in hindsight we wish we hadn’t. We just want to help the person feel like we feel their pain. We don’t. Even if we have had our own version of their pain in our own lives. Grief is an intensely personal experience and there isn’t any formula or time line for its process. Every person handles grief in their own way. Comparing the loss of your beloved pet to someone who just lost their child in a tragic motorcycle accident is not helpful. (Yes, this is a true story.)
When my brother was dying, one of his frustrations was the sad looks that people would have in their eyes when they went to visit him. He felt like it became his job to make them feel better, rather than the other way around. I get this. Who the hell could possibly know what to say to a twenty five year old young person? It is too sad for anyone to deal with. This is where Hospice was most helpful giving all kinds of advice along the way, but death isn’t always neat and tidy like this. Sometimes loss isn’t something someone knows is about to happen.
Saying or doing the right thing.
Mastering this can be tricky because grief is so personal and specific to the person who has lost someone. Age, type of loss, sudden death or suicide vs long drawn out sickness are all tragic, but sometimes in different levels. Losing my 103 year old Grandfather was sad but also celebratory of a life well lived. Losing my 25 year old brother to cancer was tragic and devastating.
Often the best thing to say to anyone dealing with any loss is:
"I just wanted you to know I am thinking about you and your family during this sad time."
Whether in a card or eye to eye, these simple words are a bridge to allowing someone their own time, but knowing in the background there are people out there who care.
This is really what people who are grieving need— to know that there are angels among us with open hearts who take time out of their lives to reach out and say something.
I went to a Shiva once and the mother who had lost her son was thanking me for coming. She said something that has stayed with me. “Alayne, it is the people who don’t show up I remember, more so than the ones who did.” I knew exactly what she meant.
Being silent and absent is worse. If you feel awkward, then at the very least, send a card that says, "I didn’t know what to say except that I am thinking about you during what must be a most sad and difficult time for you and your family."
But don’t disappear; that is much worse.
Grief Gift Giving
Gifts often are something we want to send when someone is grieving loss. Flowers, edible arrangements, plants, donations, books on grief, dinner trains, babysitting, housecleaning, the list goes on. This is where I am an expert. I have developed these really beautiful gift boxes that give people a chance to feel even the briefest of pause in their sadness. Each item is wrapped with typed notes attached that help grief along. Way more than flowers, my grief boxes are designed so that you don’t have to even think about what to do or say.
I do this because I know what to say. Grief needs a respite every once in a while and my gift boxes do just this. They give a respite to the sadness; not to make it disappear because this is impossible, but to soften the sadness to give comfort and most importantly to acknowledge their pain and loss with a thoughtful and kind hearted experience to let them know that they are loved and cared for by someone out there in the world of busy-ness.