Sadly, I’m pretty familiar with death and grieving. I was born to grieving parents who had just lost a 14 yr old son, Peter, to tragedy 18 months earlier. I know what it is to be missing a whole person and I’ve known it all my life. Years later when my other brother Billy died I remember sitting between my parents at the funeral wondering how a world could be so cruel that these 2 harmless people had to bury 2 children. It changed me. A whole layer of sparkle got wiped off this girls’ soul…..and after that it just peels away slowly over the years. With every heartbreak, more sparkle falls away. Never to return.
It wasn’t until I lost my parents, 17 months apart, that I came to really know what grief did to me. A primal sound that comes from the bottom of your soul and rips through you. A knowing that the ground has just opened up and nothing will ever be the same again. Its catastrophic when someone you love dies. Irreparable. Permanent. Stunningly painful. A feeling that its impossible to take a deep breath. Ever again.
I recall standing in the Vancouver airport about to board and knowing that between learning of my mom’s passing the night before and boarding this early morning flight, my dad had been sleeping and was still blissfully unaware. My sister asking if I wanted to see my mom when I got home and collapsing to the ground in the waiting area in such disbelief that this was even a question to be spoken aloud. How do you come to a place in the world where you have to make this kind of decision with a sibling over a cell phone. Death is inevitable and my only wish for any person is that it happen in the least crushing way to the survivors. But that’s not always the case. My soul, like many others, has been crushed by death. My heart broken. I know this feeling. I try sooooo hard to keep it at arms length as much as I possibly can. It’s how I need to be. It’s my survival tactic.
But this trip…this whole year…..death has been a fucking jerk. On a very public scale we have lost some really talented people. My friends in Banff lost a beautiful soul in Kimba. We lost my friend Paul last summer. He had 3 boys. My favorite aunt, Winifred, died the day I arrived in Morocco back in January. I recently visited my other favorite aunt, Marjorie, who is still living at 92 and in great spirits. But I stood in stunned silence when it came time to leave. To say, “so long till next time”…..with reality living large and in charge in the middle of our hug goodbye. My good good friend had a brush with death that was really uncool but thank God we had the precious chance to talk about it over sangria.
When I arrived back from Morocco, it was only a matter of days before I learned of a neighbours recent passing. A seemingly healthy and vibrant man, lost to cancer, leaving a wife and son who I think the world of. I was stunned. I distinctly remember the last time I spoke with him. I had also learned, just before coming home, that my friend had lost her sister to a sudden and tragic death. Devastating. Not to mention that this same dear friend lost her other sister 2 months and 2 days later to cancer. Seeing her on Sunday at Robins’ service was the first time that I have ever realized there are no words for this kind of loss. None. “I’m sorry for your loss.” The correct thing to say. The only thing to say. But the complete inadequacy of these words suddenly stunned me. I literally went to a place inside me where words did not exist and all I was feeling for her in that moment could never ever be expressed.
I came home last night from the service, tired and feeling sad, but relieved because I know Christy will be ok. In time. Not the same. Never the same. But ok.
And there on Facebook I saw the face of a girl I used to know many years ago. And I learned of her sudden passing just that morning. I didn’t understand what I was reading. I scrolled down her page to find the post I remember from the day before at their campsite. #thisisthelife and #familytime were her latest hashtags. How was this possible? On the way to the funeral home that very afternoon, I passed the neighbour where they lived when I knew her. I had thought of her and our short friendship. One summer of walks and talks and a camping trip. Dinner over at their home. I recalled her and her lovely daughter who told me at the age of 4, “I see you selling sandals on a beach somewhere Kaffey” – weirdest thing any child has ever said to me. One thought I always had when I thought of Christy was, “God you are a lucky woman. Your husband ADORES you.” And he did. Does. Always will. Mike loves that woman like I’ve never seen before. My heart aches today like it hasn’t in a long time. It aches for these broken people who are left to carry on without. For all of us who have or will lose so very much. But I suppose that is what happens when you live large. You love large and you lose large.
Its also occurred to me this summer that while there are no words that can be spoken in these times, when you have a friend who is grieving, you still have a job to do. And you must do it consciously and you must do it well. Because its your job.
I know so very many people who are not remotely comfortable with death. I have seen them run from it and I have also seen them (appreciatively) stand up to their fear. No one is comfortable with it. So when you are at the service paying your respects go ahead and be afraid. But show up. If all you can do is look them in the eye and say “sorry” then go do that. If you cry? So what! Someone just died. Cry your eyes out. If you are able, share a kind memory or a funny moment. When it comes to the visitation, service, memorial, celebration of life, whatever form it takes – show up. Send a note, send a card. But show up. Any way you are able.
But it doesn’t end with the service. It is, in fact, after the service where you can contribute best. It’s your job to go to lunch with your grieving friends. It is your job to think of them after the funeral and to go have a cup of coffee with them. To pick up the phone in the evening and call them. Don’t worry, if you are disturbing them they won’t answer. But if they want to talk, you’re there. It is your job to be available. Make plans and offer them up. Don’t be offended by “no thanks” and don’t be discouraged. Try again in a day or two.
It’s often thought that people who are grieving should not be left alone. If you are the person who is left with them please know it is your job to protect them. That’s all. Listen to them talk. Listen to them breath. Just be there to protect them. Protect them from phone calls they don’t want, details they don’t need to think about, food they can’t remember to prepare. Help them to do whatever the hell it is they need to do to get to the next minute and not one thing more.
Talk about normal things like you would with normal people. Talk about the things you would have talked about “before”. If they want to talk of the person who died, they will. They will bring it up. You don’t need to. Its PERFECTLY ok to just go and be normal. Make it easy for them to be with you. Show only love and kindness. Speak in calming tones of nice things. Normal things. Be positive. Be generous. Make sure there is laughter. Be respectful of the grief that they’ve managed to push to one side for that hour, knowing full well that it will ride back in after you are done and probably stay for a good few days before this dear friend has another chance to feel a bit normal again, for another hour. It is our job, as friends of the grieving, to be around with kind, gentle, loving reminders that life goes on, and they can take all the time they want to settle back into it. Because we are there to support, to love, to nourish and to protect them as much as possible from the utter devastation that has taken over. It is our job to provide a soft landing place. A safe environment where they can burst into tears in the middle of Starbucks knowing you understand. We must hold these friends dearly, close to our open hearts, keep the mess of life as far from them as possible, in the moments when they are with you. And then you pass them along to another friend to do the same. And so on.
Another thing you can do is say their name. (Bill, Joan, Peter, Billy) Speak the name of the person that is lost. (Dillon) Don’t be afraid. (Vicky, Robin, Christy) You will acknowledge that the person existed and was valued by more than just family. They have a name. They lived and contributed and messed up and won sometimes and failed some other times but they lived and they had a name. Say it.
My friend, who has also experienced the awful loss of a sibling, was quick to point out on Saturday night, that as the Hip took the stage for their final performance, the band surrounded Gord. If you don’t remember, wobble on over to CBC.ca and look. The band, his family, surrounded him on all sides in a tight circle. Function of a small stage? The need to give the allusion that this very ill man was still active and moving but in a much more manageable space? I don’t think so. I think they surrounded him because he is dying and that is their job.