So in an effort to write, I came up with a Cliff Notes version of how to handle a person who has recently experienced a loss. Many people have commented to me that they "don't know what to do" at a time like this. Well, me too. So here's my advice. Take it with a grain of salt, or take it to heart. It's your call. And please feel free to let me know if I missed anything.
HOW TO HELP A FRIEND WHO RECENTLY EXPERIENCED A LOSS
1.) ACKNOWLEDGE IT. This sounds basic, right? It's shocking to me how many people have failed to acknowledge my dad's passing. I'm not judging them - not at all - but am simply more confused by it. As a dear friend and fellow psychologist recently told me, "Not everyone is comfortable talking about intense emotion." Excellent point, Dr. Leah. And if you are one of those people who would rather bypass the topic the than talk about it at length, be prepare for a confused reaction. Because if your friend has recently experienced a loss, trust me, talking about something else will not distract them. All they are thinking about is their loss. And until it's acknowledged, it kind of hangs in the room like a heavy cloud. Mention it, give them a hug, or just a smile; I promise the other person won't melt into a puddle on your carpet.
2.) OFFER YOUR CONDOLENCES, BUT DON'T EXPECT TO CHEER THE PERSON UP. It's a noble cause, I know, to want to make the other person smile or laugh in the face of grief. But it's sometimes just not possible. It's great to be a good friend, but part of that friendship is the respect is allowing the person to be with their grief. They won't grieve forever, and eventually, your friend will return to their usual emotional state. But if you try to force it, it just gets awkward for everyone.
3.) TRY NOT TO SOUND LIKE A HALLMARK CARD. Remember, this person is your friend. Saying things like, "May the loving memories live in your heart for the years to come" is rather poetic, but kind of generic, too. Be real. The grieving person is looking to you for a kind word and maybe a shoulder to cry on, not poetry. If you can't think of anything else to say, just tell them something nice about them - "You're strong, you will get through this" or "I believe in you." Two of my favorite comments from the wake were from two of my dearest friends, and they were silly, sincere, sweet comments - which is exactly like Liz and Krista. One was about my dress and the other was about my hair. When you're in the middle of crappy stuff like death, it's nice to be told, "Your hair looks fabulous!" even when it may not be 100% accurate. (Midwestern humidity, anyone?) The point is, both comments made me smile - sincerely - and that was really helpful.
4.) IF YOU KNEW THE PERSON, OFFER A STORY OR MEMORY OF THEM. I cannot emphasize how helpful this is -- whenever I received messages about my dad on Facebook or in person, it really does help. Perhaps one of the most startling aspect of the wake was the group of men who came up to my sister and I and offered different stories about my dad at work. When you are faced with the magnitude of this kind of loss, those stories are priceless. Even if it's a insignificant memory to you, it won't be insignificant to that person.
5.) SOMETIMES, LESS IS MORE. We're all guilty of putting our foot in our mouth at some point. And when you are trying to comfort a friend, it's easy to go on and on without thinking. The only problem is that the more you say, the more apt you are to say something really hurtful. At the tale end of a long, heartfelt speech, I heard, "At least he didn't suffer" and I almost lost my shizz. Because sadly, that statement is totally not accurate. In fact, that statement brought back the entire week we spent in Indiana, with all of the doctor appointments and long moments in the house, and the look on my dad's face when Kelly and I left for the airport. He did suffer. He knew what was going on. I asked him if he wanted to see a video of Scotty, and he said no. He knew. He was dying and it was too painful for him to see what he was going to miss out on. (okay, now I'm crying.) It's a stupid, insensitive statement that brought up a ton of pain and hurt, and the problem is, that person couldn't take it back. So, just be thoughtful, especially if you choose to comment on stuff you don't know about. It's better to stop talking and offer a hug or squeeze on the shoulder than to venture into unknown verbal commentary.
6.) DON'T TRY TO MAKE IT BETTER. It is what it is. We've all seen "The Lion King." I get the whole 'circle of life' thing. Children are supposed to bury their parents. Dying is part of the whole living gig, and while it sucks, it's not exactly avoidable. A grieving person will come to terms with what is going on, but trying to cheer them up is a futile endeavor. Along the lines of #5, telling someone, "At least he is not suffering anymore," is just as craptastic as thinking he didn't suffer at all. Let's just avoid the whole suffering conversation, okay? Ix-nay on the uffering-say. Thanks.
7.) ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO, AND THEN FOLLOW UP. The days leading up to all of the ceremonies are chaotic with phone calls and appointments, and the two day of the wake and funeral are overwhelming and exhausting. And then - poof. It's all gone. Things get very, very quiet. So if time permits, don't just acknowledge the family directly after the loss, but follow up with them, too. We received a million offers of help in the week following my dad's death, and I'm terribly worried that my mom's phone has stopped ringing. So call, email, and make sure you continue to be a good friend to the person.
8.) IF YOU CAN RELATE, PLEASE SHARE. As I mentioned earlier, losing a parent is akin to being inducted into a new club. And I started to see the world as two groups: people who have lost a parent and those who haven't. All of a sudden, that first group seemed like a safe community, and maybe one that could offer some much-needed advice or support. I wanted to hear about other friends' losses, and my friend Courtney, mom to Carson and Sam (Scotty's on-again, off-again girlfriend), suddenly became my oxygen. Everything from her experience with hospice care to funeral arrangements, I wanted - no, needed - to hear how she got through it and what it was like for her. Aside from being a good friend, she became an invaluable support and comrade in loss. Thank you, Court.
8.) GIVE THEM SPACE. Your friend isn't going to be your "normal" friend for awhile. Experiencing a loss creates the "new" normal - i.e. things will go back to routine, but don't expect your friend to be totally the same person. They want to get back to normal, too, but it feels weird. As yet another brilliant psychologist friend (Dr. Jill) mentioned to me, grief can be disorienting. It's like you forget about the loss during a conversation or TV show or movie, only to remember it and be brought to Earth with a sudden, unexpected thud. Give your friend space to be disoriented, uncertain, and off-kilter.
I hope this helps anyone reading it. I know I have greatly appreciated all of the kind emails, Facebook comments and messages, and comments on this blog. It has made this tough time that much easier, and I cannot thank you all enough.