My long-time companion and teacher, Bentley, died in my arms this month. Bentley was a Lhasa Apso who came to me at a profoundly difficult time in my life and journeyed with me through an amazing thirteen years.
I’m no stranger to grief: I lost father, brother, husband, stepfather, uncle, grandparents, friends and pets all by the age of 32. But Bentley’s passing reminded me (yet again) of just how difficult grief is. What makes it worse is that there is no social etiquette, no cultural wisdom or ritual to cope with death any more. No one knows how to deal with loss: not the bereaved and not those around them. We all would prefer that death just go away. We pretend it might. This is such a mistake, because not only is death part of life, it’s what makes our lives meaningful.
It’s sad to think that we need guidance in how to grieve, how to be with someone who has gone through a loss when it’s as basic as The Golden Rule: treat others as you would be treated. Simple as that sounds, we don’t do it. We freeze up when faced with death. Between the tremendous fear and ignorance in our culture regarding grief and mourning, no one knows what to do, what to say, how to be.
In light of this sad state of affairs, I offer this, my Guide to Grief.
HOW TO HELP SOMEONE WHO IS MOURNING
SAY SOMETHING. Do not believe for one second that it would be better to leave them alone, better not to call, better to wait until they say something. Showing that you are aware of their loss, that you care, reaching out in any way is the best medicine there is. Avoidance and silence are a second death. If you’re thinking, “I don’t know what to say!” say this: “I don’t know what to say.” Or try, “I’m so sorry.” One friend greeted me after my husband was killed with tears in his eyes and said, simply, “This is just s***.” That was the most honest, real comment I heard, and I appreciated it.
AVOID PLATITUDES. Having admonished you to say something, let me insert a quick caveat: NEVER EVER say any of the following: “I know how you feel.” “Time will heal.”“Try to keep busy.” “It was God’s will.” “You’ll marry again.” “You’ll get another dog.” “They are in a better place now.” “God needed him/her.” These are all very unhelpful comments to someone in mourning. They do not sooth, they are not compassionate, and they will only irritate the person who is suffering. Even if you truly believe them, don’t say them.
DON’T MAKE IT ABOUT YOU. If you yourself have lost someone, resist the urge to talk about it or draw comparisons. Compassion means “suffering with:” don’t confuse it with narcissism which is “it’s all about me.” Just a quick mention that you also lost a child, or a spouse, or a sibling is enough to let them know that you understand.
SHOW UP. Being with someone who is grieving is hard. Their energy is low. They are not fun to be around. They remind you of what’s around the corner. But loss is the great common denominator: we all go through it and we all need one another when it’s our turn. Invite them to dinner or a movie. Expect nothing from them and don’t worry about what to say. Just your company, your presence is healing. It’s really that simple.
IF YOU HAVE LOST SOMEONE
EXPRESS. As horrifically painful as it is, allow the grief to have it’s way with you. Let it rip while it’s fresh and tearing your heart to shreds. Cry an ocean. Write. Paint. Do whatever you do to get it up and out. Don’t worry about being a certain way for other people. You don’t need to censor yourself. Repressing is not normal and it is not healthy: it will make you sick.
DON’T JUDGE YOURSELF. Don’t judge yourself for anything you feel or don’t feel. You do not need to put a timer on your feelings, or think you should be “better” by a certain point in time. There’s nothing wrong with you if you have a good day. Likewise, don’t be surprised if you fall apart at a movie ten months down the line.
DO NOT CONFUSE HEAD WITH HEART. You may know that the death was inevitable, that the person/animal is better off not suffering, but this does not obviate the feelings you have about it. Do not try to keep yourself confined to the realm of logic, as if that should take care of everything. You know what you know, and you feel what you feel.
CHOOSE YOUR FRIENDS WISELY. Be careful about whom you allow into your experience. Choose only those people with whom you feel safe, those whom you believe will understand and be able to comfort and support you. Try not to tell the whole story to the clerk at the grocery store, or the casual acquaintance who you brush by at Bi-Mart. This does not serve anyone, especially you.
DON’T PUSH. Don’t try to do things you are not ready to do. Don’t try to be cheerful and nice if you’re not. Don’t allow anyone else to push you. Be honest with yourself, and remember–no judgment.
BREATHE. It’s not easy to breathe when you hurt. The body tends to hold the breath under duress, perhaps because breathing releases emotion and there it all comes again and you’re a mess sitting there at the red light. I often found my chest hurting and would think What’s wrong? only to realize that I’d forgotten to breathe. Breath is life. For better or worse, you’re still here. Breathe.
ALLOW GRIEF IN. Because it is so god-awful painful, there is a strong temptation to avoid grief at any cost, through diversions of work or alcohol or even clinical depression. This only serves to prolong and complicate the process. Trust me. The Sufi poet Rumi wrote: “ That hurt we embrace becomes joy. Call it to your arms where it can change.” If you don’t embrace it, it will sit and fester and rot at the edge of your heart. It will steal your life.
TAKE YOUR TIME. Know that it is normal to grieve for a long, long time. A year is considered completely normal by psychological standards. Take two if need be. You do not need to be medicated (unless you are in danger of hurting yourself). There is nothing wrong with you. You have lost a part of yourself. It will take time to put yourself back together. There’s no schedule, no order, no right time to “move on.”
REMEMBER LIFE. Even In the midst of your sorrow, be aware of the solace and beauty around you. Find just one, small something to be grateful for each day. And remember, death is not the opposite of life, it’s the opposite of birth. There is no opposite of Life. Energy cannot be created or destroyed: it only changes form.