An online friend has taken me to task about the anger in my posts about grief. I started to reply privately, but my comments quickly turned into a post of their own. After all, it’s a difficult question: how do you support someone in mourning?
True, I think that the friend has misread the anger. I don’t attack people just because they hand me bad poetry for consolation, or toss cliches my way. If anything, in person, I am generally too polite; I not only suffer fools gladly, but actively encourage them. I write my frustrations so that I don’t express them face-to-face.
Nor do I write simply to express a peeve, although probably I have sometimes taken advantage of the added tolerance extended to people in my position. If I mention specifics, it’s not an attack on the person involved – it’s because I want to illustrate something that’s widespread.
In writing about grief, I am venturing into the confessional realms of writing. When you are writing in the confessional mode, what you are doing is reporting the view from where you are at the moment. For that goal to have any value or interest (even to myself), the reporting has to be as honest as I can make it. Leaving out the anger would be a distortion, so I’m not going to do it. I’m not proud of the anger, but I have to report it if I’m going to approach the subject at all. The fact that very few people write in detail about grief makes me all the more determined to be as honest as possible.
Still, my friend has a point. Having written about how not to handle someone who’s grieving, to be accurate I need to express the view from the opposite perspective.
If my experience is typical, I think you have to start with the knowledge that there is not much you can do for a person who is grieving. Only time and circumstances can do that, and you are better off saying too little than too much
For example, I will always be grateful to the friend who, a few days after Trish’s death, invited me over to hangout one Saturday afternoon. She didn’t approach the topic, and we didn’t do anything more serious that talk idly and walk her cat, but that brief oasis of normality was exactly what I needed. A few weeks later, we went to a coffee shop, with the same basic ground rules, and, again, I felt relieved to be doing what other people were doing.
People online can do much the same by emailing and chatting regularly. The effect isn’t as strong as in-person contact, but don’t let anyone tell you that online relationships are invariably shallow. There have been days when having a chat window pop up was the only thing between me and complete depression. The thing is, grief separates you from the everyday, and even if you are not ready to rejoin the daily grind, you appreciate the knowledge that it’s still out there.
Then there were the four or five people who have helped me sort Trish’s property and make sure that as much of it as possible got into the hands of people who would appreciate it. Hording it (except for select exceptions), seemed wrong, and dumping it or sending it to Value Village to be pawed over by strangers felt even worse. But there was far more stuff than I could easily sort and move by myself, and working beside others is one of the best ways I know to feel that you are connected to someone. If there’s not property to dispose of, then housecleaning or cooking can serve much the same purpose.
Later, you might make an effort to invite the grieving person to a quiet group activity. They are unlikely to want to go dancing until dawn, or to be the center of attention, but just being with people can be comforting.
Of course, you can’t expect too many expressions of gratitude for any of this support. The emotions of a person who is grieving are out of control, and expressing even a relatively mild emotion like gratitude can break what little control that they have. But you will know if they appreciate your efforts by the simple fact that they respond.
But no matter how you support those who are bereaved, move slowly and at their pace – the rules that apply to taming an animal. What you do will be frustrating and never seem enough, but it will still be better than reacting in stereotypical ways or with cliched phrases – and considerably better than nothing at all.