When you lose someone you love, especially unexpectedly, life becomes a blur. It doesn't really feel like living at all. It feels like surviving. That's exactly what it is actually. For me, it was like treading water, but it wasn't refreshing and fun, on a hot summer day. It was cold and dark and daunting. Some swimmers flawlessly move forward with grace and flow, but not me. I was the one spitting and gagging and exhausting myself just to stay alive.
When my mother died suddenly at the young age of 50, I truly don't remember much. I don't remember much of what was said, or much of what happened. I do remember who was there though, and I remember when it was all over. When the funeral ended; when everyone went home; when the flowers were distributed and the food put away; when the dishes were all done and the trash taken out, then the silence began. Oh gosh the silence is not where I wanted to be. Bring them all back, please. Please, please, please don't make me sit in the silence, in the darkness, by myself. Please don't make me think about what I just lost. Please, please, please, someone tell me this isn't my life. Someone tell me it was all one big horrible dream and when I wake up everything will be back to normal.
Our normal never resumed. Like her, it was gone. Everyone else's normal carried on. Yes, she was missed, and yes her absence left a hole in people's hearts, but it was tiny compared to what we had to mend. Our lives were obliterated and now we had to figure out how to pick up the pieces. We had to create our new normal.
If you've ever had to create a new normal, it's challenging to say the least. I'd be so bold to say it sucks actually. Now, I know this isn't the greatest language, and honestly, my perspective on this is way different now, but when I was in it, man did it suck. So, how can we help each other move forward? How can we help the hurting, as they move into the rebuilding phase? How can we help after everyone goes home? How can we help when the silence creeps in? How can we help them carry on?
We do such a good job in the beginning. We bring meals. We send flowers. We encourage and hug and support, but as time goes on, life resumes. We start focusing on our own lives and our own troubles. We all do it. It's normal, but maybe that's just it. Maybe it's time for us to step out of our normal also. Maybe we should let loss change us more too.
Before we get to how we can help the family and close friends, I want to talk about you. It's actually much easier for us to focus on the pain of others, and not our own, but funerals are a perfect opportunity for you to take a look at your "grief gauge." According to the book, On Grief and Grieving, by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D. and David Kessler, "If you see someone else crying and you cry, it is triggering some sadness you feel inside. Sometimes you'd rather cry for any situation, but your own, but regardless of your preferences, you are always crying for yourself."
I used to be a mess at funerals. It didn't matter who it was, how much I knew them, or what the circumstances, they jacked me up. It would take me quite awhile to regain my balance also. It's like all the old memories just flooded back in and took me over. I very obviously still had grief work to process, from several different losses, but if you asked me "I was all good." It's amazing how long we can sit in denial. Now, after years of unpacking a lot of unresolved grief and trauma, and taking the time to feel (if you want to heal), I experience funerals completely different. My wounds are healed and though I still feel great compassion, and I still remember, I don't get lost in my own story anymore.
I don't expect anyone to be thrilled about attending a funeral, but if you weren't close, but you still find yourself getting knocked off course, please take that as a sign to review your own grief. Take it as a sign that your healing isn't complete. Wounds don't hurt if they are healed. You can't scratch a scar back open if it's completely mended. It's so easy when we see it from a physical perspective. If an old wound starting oozing, we wouldn't ignore it. We wouldn't just go "oh that old thing, it oozes here and there." No, we'd go "Oh my, that is a 20-year-old wound. That's not normal. Maybe I should see a doctor or do something to make sure it doesn't do that again."
So, first, work on you. That is the greatest gift you can give to the world. Tend to yourself, so you can then tend to others. You can't give anyone a drink of water if your pitcher is empty. Can you do this while also helping the family? Absolutely, but be careful. It's not their job to help you heal. They have their own mess to tend to. Sometimes we get so lost in our own grief, that we dump it on the very same people who are suffocating in it, and that can be very overwhelming for them. So, do your best while you are helping to keep your own emotions and feelings in check. That doesn't mean don't deal with them, just don't do it in front of the grieving family.
So, after you've checked yourself, how can you best serve those closest to the lost loved one?
1. Stay in touch. Grief is uncomfortable for many. We don't know what to say, and sometimes that means we actually don't say anything. There is no magic word that will fix it all, but don't let your own discomfort cause isolation to occur. Check in with them via a text, card or something small just to tell them you are thinking about them. This is especially important on all those first holidays and important dates.
2. Pray for them. It's one of the easiest, but most powerful things ever. According to Matthew 18: 19-20 "I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about something and pray for it, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven." Don't underestimate the power of your prayer. Pray for their comfort, their strength, their healing and for all their needs to be met. If you get a quiet nudge while you are praying or after, follow it. God reaches people, thru other people, so take that as a sign that today is the day you get to be his helper.
3. Listen more. Talk less. Again, there are no magic words that will fix any of this, and in our discomfort, we can tend to say uncomfortable things. Just listen to them with your complete presence. Listen to understand. Don't offer advise unless you've been asked and don't compare your story to theirs, unless it's absolutely appropriate.
4. Talk about their loved one. Many of us are afraid that if we bring them up, they will cause discomfort, create sadness and open up a wave of tears. We are also scared of the "uncomfortableness." So, we often avoid saying their name. They want to talk about them though. They haven't forgotten, believe me. Talking about them is a continuous tribute to who they lost.
5. Let them cry, and don't offer them a tissue. We all do this, and though we think it's a sign of comfort, it actually is a sign of our discomfort. There's a hidden undertone that says, "Here's a tissue, wipe your tears and please stop crying because this is horribly uncomfortable and I don't know what to do." Use discretion here though. It's also not fun to cry and "snot" all over the place. It's okay to have a box nearby, and of course grab some if they ask.
6. Offer help. When you are grieving, the smallest of tasks seem monumental. Offer to mow their lawn, do the dishes, sweep the floor, babysit, cook a meal, treat them to a coffee, etc. The smallest gestures and offers of help mean so much.
7. Understand what the grief process looks like, for your benefit and theirs. Grief has stages - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These aren't linear either. You bounce back and forth all over the place between them. It's a rollercoaster ride and you can even bounce thru them all in one single day (or hour). They aren't crazy. They are grieving. Honor that. Love them where they are. They are doing their very best, with a pile of lemons and no one needs judged in their individual grief process.
Grief is hard. Rebuilding your life is hard. New normals are hard. We can't do the work for them, but we can offer understanding, comfort, encouragement, support, help and prayer while they figure it all out.
The good news is there is a sixth and final stage of grief that I didn't mention above. It's known as meaning or purpose. It takes a long time to get there and some may never quite see it, but grief, if allowed time to process and heal, can be transforming. The hardest minerals in existence, a diamond, is put thru intense heat and pressure under the Earth's surface, at different time increments, before they are able to be displayed as a sign of love in our jewelry. Grief, like a diamond, can one day emerge forward as a beautiful sign of strength, resilience, and yes love...
Angela Miller is an RN and Transformation Coach. She is passionately pursuing her calling to help people transform pain into purpose. To schedule a free consult, or for more information, visit www.soaringforward.com.