Ten years ago, when I was 35, my stepson took his life.
I hate calling him my stepson, since I considered him, and consider him still, my child (as I do all of my children)—but I am not his biological mother, and that fact must be respectfully acknowledged. Nevertheless, I adored this boy and mothered him for many years, during which we loved and hated and respected and frustrated each other just like any regular mother and son.
When he died, I was new to death. Like many Americans, I had only really experienced the deaths of my grandparents, and even those were as remote as my relationships with them.
Where once death was as unremarkable as the changing seasons, now it flies in on the wind of disbelief. Like a myth, or a legend, we know that somewhere at the bottom of it is a grain of truth, but surely it won’t apply to us.
It is inevitable; we will all die.
Why then, is it so surprising when death brushes up against us? Why are we so clumsy in our dealings with it, so unable to think of the right things to say or do?
This is how it was for us, my family. We stood around the oddly lifelike body of our son/brother in the silent bay of an underused suburban emergency room and wondered, How can this be happening?
We laid our hands on his cool head and waited for him to open his eyes, but he simply receded further and further away until finally we were asked to leave, because things needed to be done with him that no one should ever see. Organ donation is a necessary but, in reality, gruesome business.
The next days, weeks and months were filled with an outpouring of support: vigils, food, gifts, flowers, cards, hugs, visitors and countless gestures of love and goodwill. If ever I had doubted my faith in humanity, this was a time that proved compassion is real and abundant.
My husband and I marveled at the fact that everyone seemed to know what to do, and that they were brave enough to do it. We sort of just hung on for the ride and let the waves of our grief sweep us along.
In reality, no one knew what they were doing at all. When it comes to death, no one ever does.
In subsequent times of other people’s loss, I have often been shocked by my own ineptitude. My instinct, and certainly this is not uncommon, is to run and hide. I don’t want to deal with it. If I pretend it isn’t there, maybe it will go away.
Perhaps solely for the reason that so many good souls were there for me do I manage to pull myself together and do something. I’m fairly certain that what I end up doing is never perfect, but I’ve learned, at least, that a clumsy gesture is better than no gesture at all.
Here are some of the things that helped us when we were suffering. They may not be universally helpful, but they are a place to start. The most important idea is that sincerely expressing love or caring is never the wrong path to take.
1) Don’t be afraid to speak the name of the deceased.
The name of the deceased becomes a precious commodity. No longer is it used in casual parlance, because it suddenly becomes attached to echoes, pain and uncertainty—thus, people begin to avoid saying it.
By saying this name, we can acknowledge the continued importance in our present lives of the deceased. This is powerful and healing, though also difficult.
2) Don’t avoid being around people who are grieving.
Even if we go to the door of a grieving person and are turned away, the fact that we reached out has an impact.
Remember, many people are suddenly avoiding such a person due to their own discomfort and the belief that grief requires solitude (which may be true, but the grieving should be given the opportunity to express this for themselves).
By not being the friend who allows their fear to keep them away, we might be offering the precise thing that will make a difference.
3) Remember that grieving goes on and on—it may last a lifetime.
I remember about a year after my son died, I heard this secondhand remark: ”Isn’t it time for the family to move on?”
It is hard to overstate how profoundly hurtful those words were.
Certainly there comes a time when we can move on from grief, but there is no timeline, and even if there were, a year definitely wouldn’t be it.
4) Share personal memories of the deceased.
This is another interaction that brings up so much discomfort for friends of the grieving person that it is often simply avoided. We should force ourselves to do it anyway, for there are no new memories of someone who has died.
Virtually the only unknown information a grieving person will ever receive about the deceased is other people’s memories.
5) Don’t take it personally if a grieving friend doesn’t return calls, say thank you or behave as they normally would.
In Joyce Carol Oates’ heart breaking memoir, A Widow’s Story, she discusses the overwhelming anxiety of the responsibility of writing thank you letters to everyone who did something nice for her. She simply couldn’t do it, and was wracked with guilt at her inability.
One thoughtful friend took the time to write these magic words on her condolence card, “Please do not reply,” thus releasing Oates from her obligation to do anything in response. What a wonderful idea.
6) Don’t start telling stories of your own grief or loss.
A common instinct when someone is sad is to empathize with stories of our own sadness or loss—I have made this mistake myself. This is not what a grieving person needs, though it may seem easier for us, or even appropriate. They simply don’t have the energy to absorb what we are sharing.
Instead, we need to keep our attention squarely focused on the grieving person, so that they may feel safe releasing some of their sadness in our presence.
7) Ask lots of questions. Listen to the answers.
Related to number six, asking questions helps a grieving person get some of the poison out without feeling as if they are burdening us with unwanted information.
8) Don’t ask what you can do—just do it.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” the well-meaning and inevitably frustrating refrain a grieving person hears from just about everyone they encounter.
The problem is, such a person has no idea what it is that they need.
Instead of asking what you can do, just show up to walk the dogs, change the sheets, clean up the kitchen, make some soup or do a load of laundry.
9) Try to remember important dates.
Anniversaries and birthdays take on a profound significance once someone has died. Often, after the first year or two, these dates are no longer acknowledged. Don’t make that mistake.
A grieving person never forgets those dates, and the friend who can help her remember is a good friend indeed.
When the specter of death visits us, our friends and our family—and it will—it is best to be forthright and brave. When other people are too afraid and turn away, we can be the one who stands up tall and behaves as if we know what it is we’re doing.