A Few Things I’ve Learned About Other People’s Loss
As of writing this, all my family and my friends are fine, as far as I know. But family of my friends and friends of my family are all dealing with loss of one of their own, soon. More detail isn’t important; we will all be in that place soon, and soon enough. So it seems no worse or better a time to put down a few things I’ve learned about being in a long line, waiting your turn to say… something?… that might help someone facing a loss.
Do not say “I’m sorry”
It’s the most common thing to do. But I once said that to someone very close to me as she was facing her mother’s sudden death, and she quickly and rightly said back to me, “How do you think I feel?”
That’s right. It’s not about you. You’re not there to perform your sympathy, or you shouldn’t be. It’s okay to be sad and visibly so, of course.
But be there for the people who need support. If you’re blanking on what to say in such an awkward situation, ask, “How are you?” Ask what you can do.
Care for the living
This can require being a bit active, or maybe feeling like you’re being pushy. But those who are running around having to make arrangements, seeing that all the family from out of town are squared away, that the flowers are okay, they are pushing themselves through triple duty, any one of which could make anyone buckle. They may feel they have to be strong.
They’re not wrong; they have to care for the others still living. But odds are, they’re doing it at the expense of caring for themselves. Make a point of reminding them that they have to sleep, to eat, to self-care.
It’s the living we can take care of.
Don’t impose your beliefs
Unless you know those who are in loss are evangelical Christians, better not to lead with, “They’re with Jesus now.” Having a laugh because you’re an enlightened “spiritual but not religious” person? Check yourself, and do it now. As hurtful as it’d be to you to have someone impose their own religion on your dreamcatcher groove, it’s hurtful to others to have you offer your own belief in some ineffability. Rule of thumb: if you substitute “Zeus” for your own belief and it sounds wrong to you, don’t lay it on someone else.
I know, you’re trying to be caring. And you’re sure that Valhalla is a real place. It doesn’t matter how sure you think you are, or even if you are. You think sharing that may be a comfort. But it isn’t. The person you’re telling your belief to may be too polite or may be too concerned about, you know, other things, to let you know this. But trust me. It isn’t about you and your beliefs at this moment. You will have your turn.
Again, care for the living. If they want to pray with you, that may just means they need a hand, one in this world, to hold on to. Refer to the points above in case you need help holding back your own beliefs. It’s cool, they’re still yours, and you can do with them what you will, in your own time.
Unless you believe you are literally a modern-day Pharaoh (and if you are, get in touch — I can get a tour together), memorials are for the living. I know I’d feel better if I knew people remembered me after my death, but that only works while I’m alive to feel, right? That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit a memorial site or grave on your own, but do it for yourself in that case. Feel good that you knew someone, and that they knew you.
There’s a roadside memorial I bike past a few times a week in the Oakland hills. I have no idea what happened there, or who it was that the photo attached to it was, other than a child. I’ve never seen anyone there, but it regularly has fresh flowers, new colored strings hanging from it. I always wave. I have no idea if the body is even there, and it’s silly to think of spirits or ghosts. I wave because obviously some people still care, and remember, and my wave honors that.