As human beings we have created the ability to explore the depths of the ocean and the limitless skies, but when it comes to matters of death and loss, we struggle to understand those who are grieving.
Time off from work or discounted flights for bereavement rarely exist anymore. The family unit is uncomfortably assumed. We now live in a society that celebrates instant joy and pleasure, not pain or sorrow. Yet we all feel, or will feel grief at times in our lives. Loss is inevitable for everyone—how can we be dismissive of our human constitution, or attempt to avoid it?
One way our culture treats or copes with the mundanity of life is with holidays: to look forward to something, to dress up, to call that day special. Mother’s Day (Father’s Day, also) can be a powerful effect and in cases of loss or omission, tends to isolate a person without providing any support. If you have a mother, check yes. If you don’t, oh well.
For a point of reference, this year will be the fifth Mother’s Day without my mom. The first holiday was the hardest, as were many firsts without her. I spent the afternoon with a friend’s family. We walked through their wooded backyard picking wildflowers, and before dinner, I sat in the sunlight arranging colorful bouquets within vases by the length of each stem. Last year, I made a garden in our front yard. Every time I leave the house, I think of her bravery throughout her illness and her otherwise outgoing spirit so to take on the world.
Sadness with Happiness All Around
Triggers, for me, are everywhere. Holidays are the trickiest. My mother died on Christmas morning and through all the noise of sequin dress shopping and New Year’s resolutions, I was quiet about it. I still am. In meeting people, sometimes I am asked, “where do your parents live?” or “what do your parents do?” and I have to break it down, as if it were a responsibility, the fact. Other times, I am questioned why I did not say something sooner, or more loudly.
I have scripted a short stack of stories that I’ll say each depending on the moment, trust, my energy. My loss has demanded intuition. My loss has made me feel decades older. While of course I hope for a semblance of peace in the years ahead, I remind myself the importance of staying present.
I know I am not alone. I turn towards my grief, and hold close stories of those who share something similar. I write everything down, because despite what they tell us about grief being clean and orderly stages, it’s not, and I know I will return to those feelings. The recollection of memories is not a linear process. I cannot count on the lines of an old pine how many times I have cried, without literal sense, in front of a friend. I have left the room. I have gotten up from the table. I have been known to have the meanest mug so much so it has a nickname, while others gather over plans for communal meals.
This year will be the fifth Mother’s Day without my mom. The first holiday was the hardest.
Sometimes I will hear “Are you okay?” and I’ll turn to see all eyes on me. Timid with emotion, I’ll respond “I’m fine” when I’m not. Sometimes I won’t hear anything at all. If the room is familiar, the chatter hums as an undertone, and later a friend will reach out, hand on arm. I am personally more willing to receive attention on matters most intense when a friend and I are one on one, or after the moment has passed. Whoever knows this, knows I’m not okay and knows to say that is okay.
Support can look different for everyone, but cliches exist for a reason. A shoulder to lean on, talking it out, grabbing a coffee, taking a nap in a hammock, the underwire of a bra, good shoes with an arch on a long walk. To support a friend is to aid in ways that hold them up. We all can relate, and if not, we all can try.
When someone you love is grieving, you are also grieving. I believe the most encouraging support is found as an honest recognition that we are humans dealing with other humans. We are in this together. I might go so far as to say, how we treat one person is how we treat all people. Empathy is something to strive for, for it is how we share.
Ways to Show True Empathy
One of the gentlest, yet strongest of questions can be “Do you want to talk about it?” Want to see my face light up? The dearest inquiry is “Tell me about her.”
Like really listen. Never stop someone from crying. When someone you love is feeling alone, be with them. Away? Check-in anyway. Check-in especially.
Notice shifts in moods and patterns in coping mechanisms. Even the simplest acts of awareness can offer kindness. Consider the natural wear and weather of self-care in times of loss. Encourage something familiar, or even new. Could it be a coloring book, knitting as a meditation? A class pass to yoga? An hour-long bath? Gift your favorite soap and draw the water. The gesture may outweigh the words.
Give into their wild ideas.
Create a ritual, an event to return to. Suggest a trip. Celebrate in their own way. Make concrete, reliable efforts. Offer assistance and follow through. Grief belongs to those who grieve. It is a personal experience. It is not yours to determine how you could, would, or should. Follow their lead. Which leads me to…
Let go of you.
When someone you love is grieving, you do not need to know everything. You might very well be wrong. It is not possible nor necessary to know what to do or how to be. Rather, be open to witness pain without the ability to fix or heal. Be patient.
Never mention religion, the afterlife, a better place.
Now is not the time.
Do not say “Call me if you need anything.”
They will not call. Not because they do not have the need, but because identifying a need, figuring out who might fill that need, and then making a phone call to ask is light years beyond their energy levels, capacity, or interest.
Show up. Give time.
A friend who is a parent shared this idea with me: when someone you love loses a parent, they become their own parent. The idea inspires hope, growth, legacy, and respect. When someone you love is grieving, the grief never ends. It is a process, personal, and strange, without destination and without knowing. It is maintenance and an obstacle course. It is “never too late” and it is kindness.
My mother always said, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” When she was alive, I witnessed the embodiment of what it means to truly care, and when she died, I picked up her advice and now carry it with me wherever I go.
While you might not be able to relate to what someone is going through, try to, at the very least, let them know you are thinking of them. It could make their day.
Karen Cygnarowicz is a writer and visual artist living in Portland, Oregon. She received her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and founded Wild Light Design, an art business and journal. Follow her Instagram, @thiswildlight.