I was honored recently to be part of a panel discussion, “Shining a Light on Grief,” with Carole Geithner, author of “If Only,” a young adult novel I thought was enchanting.
I’d recommend Carole’s book to anyone, young or old. I’d especially recommend it to bereaved young people, and those who want to learn more in order to help a bereaved friend. Some may find a novel like this more helpful than even a “how-to” book because it organically teaches what, and what not to do and say. “Showing” (as in a novel) is always more effective than “telling” (as in a “how to”).
Carole’s a professor and social worker who works with the bereaved, and she said she wrote the book, at least in part, to help her deal with her own experience of grief. As Bruised Muse readers know, I too wrote a novel inspired by my grief, “Saving Elijah.” I inscribed a copy for Carole.
She and I have a lot in common, it seems, both in our professional interests and in our understanding of the power of writing to heal. (We may also have some personal things in common, since both of us are social work types married to successful businessmen. Okay, so maybe that’s a stretch, since Carole happens to be married to the US Treasury Secretary.)
Anyway, Carole is lovely and calm and knowledgeable and reassuring (all good things for a social worker), and her book is wise and accomplished and real. It brings to life and gives voice to a believable thirteen-year-old named Corinna as she makes her way through the very difficult first year of aching loss and grief after the cancer death of her mother, Sophie. In scene after scene, often with humor, Carole believably, enjoyably, and instructively depicts many of the situations and dilemmas you encounter after the death of someone you love.
As a writer, I particularly admired the scene in which Sophie is listening to a private conversation between her father and her aunt about her mother. I was also struck by the range of experiences Carole managed to get into the book. This includes everything from the feeling that nothing is normal and you’ve arrived on an unknown planet called Planet Grief, to the need to create new rituals, to the natural attraction to people who’ve experienced similar situations or just know how to “be with” you, to all the strange and hurtful things people say to you.
What is helpful/What isn’t
Carole has put into the novel wonderful examples of what’s helpful, which fit with my own suggestions: Be present. Be humble. Be patient. Observe. Reflect. Give witness. Allow silence. Don’t judge. Don’t try to fix it. Accept. Listen.
As for what to say, “I’m sorry” is fine, or even, “I don’t know what to say.” Some people are instinctively gifted at compassion-giving, while others need instruction. It takes commitment and stamina to sit with the truly bereaved.
Carole also put in quite a few examples that nicely fall into the categories I’ve described for all the people who mean well but say the wrong things, including: babblers (let’s talk on and on—about anything else); advice givers (it’s time to clean out the room…start dating again…get over it…); platitude-offerers/pain-minimizers (God must have wanted him…he’s in a better place…you did everything you could); pseudo-empathizers (I know just how you feel); lesson-learners (everything happens for a reason…life is short…) and last and worst, abandoners.
I experienced most of these myself and I see them echoed over and over in the experience of others, so much so that at one point I was thinking of writing a book called: The Ten Worst Things to Say. The key is: Don’t say anything that de-legitimizes whatever the bereaved might be feeling.
The evening was jointly sponsored by the Jewish Family Service, Jewish Community Center, The Den for Grieving Children, Family Centers, and the Center for Hope. I have associations, one way or another, with all of these wonderful institutions in the community.
The audience included many professionals who work with the bereaved, and quite of few bereaved too. I was thankful for some wonderful questions, such as this one (I’m paraphrasing): ”I understand it’s really hard to know what to say when people ask you how many children you have.”
Yes, indeed, this is always a loaded question. It’s one of the many real dilemmas of grief, particularly at first. If someone asks how many and you leave out the dead child, you might feel as if you’re betraying that child. But if you include that dead child you might then be forced to answer the follow up questions, which might lead you (and the asker) where you might not want to go.
It’s always awful to find yourself suddenly talking about your most profound pain to a stranger who was simply making conversation, or even actually breaking down in tears in the cheese aisle. There’s also the concern that you might ruin someone’s day. Anyway, eventually most bereaved people figure out and make peace with how they want to handle this dilemma, which is one that’s going to be with them for the rest of life. It’s a case by case decision. It gets easier with time.
I hope the newly bereaved who were brave enough to come felt supported and cared for. I admit that while I wasn’t surprised, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of attendance by more non-professionals perhaps looking for information on how to help a friend. I guess I’m so comfortable with this topic, and with offering compassion to the suffering that I forget how much most people really just want to avoid it.