I think the issue with people being uncomfortable with someone grieving and not knowing what to say or do stems from our society being so uncomfortable with death. We live in a fix-it or leave it society where we search for solutions to fix things and if we can’t fix it then our inclination is to move on altogether. There is no in-between. We cannot handle the discomfort of death as something that has no solution but still demands for our attention.
The ideal that anything wrong must have a solution really struck me one day when I was reading a book to my class. There was a problem in the story and a kid puts up his hand and says (very proudly I might add, like he’s got it all figured out), “okay, that’s the problem but what’s the solution? Whenever there is a problem there is always a solution that follows.” Did I teach him that? That is how fictional stories in books and movies unfold and I guess somewhere along the way we transferred that to real life. A problem is followed by a solution at work, in relationships, and at home. Naturally, we became problem-solvers. We can’t just leave problems; we fix them. It doesn’t always work that way though. What do we do when we can’t fix something? There is no fix for Mike dying. He is not and can never be physically here and so there is nothing to fix, only to accept. I’ve found that what people say to me to try to comfort me is largely based on finding a way to “cheer me up” as a solution. However, I’m not looking for you to fix anything. You cannot fix him dying and you can’t just fix me. I know that the people who care about me would if they could. However, they still cannot.
So after, or sometimes simultaneously, as realizing that the whole fixing thing does not work I’ve found that the next course of action is “leave it.” It can’t be fixed so you must move on. Give her space and time to “heal” and “get over it”. Leave her alone and let her come to you when she’s “back to herself”. Distract her with other things. Pretend it didn’t happen. Don’t talk about it. If she talks about it, wait silently until she finishes and then politely change the subject. We wouldn’t want her to get upset, after all. It’s been how long now? Surely, she can “move on” now. I can somewhat imagine your discomfort here now too. I mean, what is there to say? It’s been almost 2 years and she’s still sad. She’s uncomfortable and now I’m uncomfortable and the whole thing is just awkward which is why it was easier to avoid in the first place.
However, instead of trying to fix or resorting to avoidance, I ask you this: can you sit with me in my discomfort? Can you acknowledge my pain and know you can do nothing about it at all but be there for me anyways? Listen to me and know my feelings, even almost 2 years post-loss, are valid? Truly leave your cliches and inclinations to mend me behind and just BE there in the moment with me? I know it is uncomfortable for you. I know it feels unnatural. I know it’s hard to watch someone you care about in pain. But guess what? That’s how my grief feels. It is painful. It is uncomfortable and unknown and misunderstood. If I can spend so much of my time uncomfortable in my grief and adjusting to my new life then surely you can spend even a short while with me even just skimming the surface of it. You can’t be fully immersed in it, fortunate for you, as it is my grief to bear and you get to leave it behind and go back to your life when you’re done your time with me. Maybe it seems like an easy task to just validate my grief but ask anyone who cares about someone who is grieving and I can assure you that being there for them without even subconsciously fixing or avoiding is a challenge.
Regardless, I challenge you this: when someone is grieving, sit in it with them. Sit as close to it as you can. Don’t worry; death isn’t contagious. Feel the discomfort if even just for a little while. Listen if they want to talk. Laugh if they laugh. Validate their feelings, whatever they may be. Let them know that you care and will support them in whatever way they need. Let them do what they need to do and leave your judgement behind. Know that it isn’t fair and it’s not okay and that in itself is okay. And for goodness sake, do NOT tell them it happened for a reason or any other crappy phrase you heard at your great-grandma’s cousin’s funeral. But more on that, in my next post.