Today I bundle under my new doonah cover, bought for its primary colours in a nod to the need for cheering up. My husband has taken our daughter to the playground, which she was unimpressed about, sensing perhaps that mummy’s retreat to bed reflected more than a sore throat (although there is that of course, too – the low immune response of grief taking its daily toll). Or perhaps she was just hungry. Who knows. She left the house swathed in a red and white check sheet which her father also used to wear as a boy, both generations emulating superheroes ready to fight off the baddies. She is my little hero, but sometimes I need a break. I feel the need to apologise for this to the gods that be, in case they think I no longer deserve her.
It has been what, three weeks? I can’t tell – since my sister died. I have started to feel guilty for still feeling bad. Shouldn’t I have moved on by now? Shouldn’t I be getting on with things? I read about one woman’s explanation, several years after losing a child – she still misses her everyday, but sometimes she is happy. I know losing my sister cannot be compared to losing a child, but I felt like I knew the sentiment.
I have begun to dig in a little, not wanting to forget my sister, not wanting to be happy just yet, as it would somehow dishonour her, mock my own grief, belittle her importance to me. I get angry at people who want to cheer me up, as if they are saying, it doesn’t matter that much. Of course that is not what people are saying – I know that. But that’s how it feels. The best responses are when friends don’t ask, how are you, but ask, how was this week – acknowledging the context, the different set of benchmarks you are operating within. But we in the West encounter death so rarely nowadays, that we don’t know how to sit with it; we don’t have the experience to know what a mourning person might need.
I don’t want this to sound like a complaint – I have received love and kindness from numerous sources, and I am lucky for this. Perhaps it is just the nature of grief, that you cast about, looking for something to fill the gap of the love you have lost. I do think it is also the lack of some kind of acknowledging ritual, or a period of mourning, something to dignify this loss, something to socially ‘see’ it.
The other thing that happens is, some people seem to think you should be less sad if the person who died had been ill or are elderly. Like it should be easier to lose someone who clearly was on the way towards death anyway. And maybe there is truth in this – the grief for Ally is for me somehow cleaner than it was for dad, whose death was a shock. But I want to scream to the world (and I think I and my siblings did this at her funeral): just because Ally was disabled does not mean I miss her less now. She was a whole person to me, right to the end.
When someone dies, you lose everything of them and you together. You lose the person who you knew as a child, as an adult; you lose your history with them even if you still have your memories. You lose their complex presence inside your life, your skin, your flesh and mind. You don’t even know exactly what warmth they provided until it is gone. I suppose this is why I am drawn to quantum physical explanations of the soul. Because the loss feels so very very physical.
I have wonderful friends and loved ones taking care of me right now. Drawing on their sweet actions, I offer the following advice to people wondering how best to relate to a mourner in their lives.
Even if you have little experience with grief yourself, I hope the following will give you a few simple ‘ins’ so that seeing a mourner does not make you feel helpless.
Tips for responding to a mourner
1. When you hear of the loss, even if belated, I recommend that you send a card, call and/or better yet, send a small caring gift or token. Don’t SMS – or if you do, follow it up with something more tangible – eg even just an email, if it is a loving one, preferably more than one line.
2. If the mourner does not return your calls, you can send an email or a card or persist in trying to call. Keep trying. It’s just that they don’t have any energy, but your thoughtfulness in persisting will make them feel loved.
3. A physical gift or token as I mentioned above, can be really appreciated. It could be chocolate, your favourite relaxing tea blend, or perhaps a massage oil. Whatever it is, as long as it is something you have thought about and want to share with the mourner – as long as it represents that you care – it doesn’t matter what it is or how small.
4. The mourner might not want to talk about it. That’s not about you, it’s about their process. I recommend occasionally offering subtle openings to talk about it if they want to – even if they said they don’t – they might change their mind half way through your conversation, once they have dealt with the initial discomfort of being re-submerged in their loss.
5. If you can, attend the funeral. Even if you think, I didn’t know the person who died all that well, it is a much, much appreciated show of support at a time when the mourner is feeling a great rent in their usual fabric of love.
6. Your mourner might still be feeling up and down, occasionally sad, depressed or angry, for many months and years. Give them a bit of rope, but you should not have to be on eggshells around the mourner, and if they take their anger out on you, it’s best if you tell them that is what they are doing – they should not do that and if they feel angry, they need to find ways to let that out. It is never OK to let a mourner make you their doormat.
7. Be aware that some of the mourner’s moods are not about you; you don’t need to (nor can you) fix them; all you need to do is be present and acknowledge the pain. Often your mourner is just looking for permission to feel whatever they are feeling, even after time has passed, because our society denies the mourner that permission. But you can support the mourner with the permission to grieve, and you may find the mourner starts feeling better sooner as a result.
8. I think I want to reiterate that point: it is not your job to make the mourner feel better. Don’t take that on. We tend to try to fix things in our society, but grief cannot be fixed. It has to be lived through and loss has to be integrated into who we are after someone has died. It is up to the mourner to tell you what they need, and it is up to you to make sure they are not milking you dry emotionally.
9. If a mourner doesn’t know what they need, you might be able to suggest things (like time off – the main things we need are time and permission). If you think the mourner is becoming maudlin (ie re-traumatising themselves for no benefit), try distraction, fresh air, sun and light exercise. Bringing up politics and things happening in the wider world can also provide perspective, and anything which gets the mourner laughing is good for them. But don’t force these things – just bring them up gently, into conversation or activities. Let them take effect rather than didactically (or self-importantly) telling someone to get out of their rut.
10. Hugs, physical touch, and checking in as time passes – these should all be top of the list really. I think this is why I talk about gifts – most of my close friends live a long distance away, so gifts are a substitute for visit and touch. If you live near a mourner, try to squeeze in a few drop-ins more than usual, and check in as time goes on too, even just a phone call here and there. Hugs generate oxytocin and connection, which the mourner desperately needs. And checking in is a great way of letting the mourner know you care, and that they are still allowed to be sad if they need to be – you acknowledge this each time you offer your open arms or ears.
Thank you to all the excellent souls who have done all of the above for me. You know who you are. xxxx