In my last published article for OpenToHope, I shared the letter I wish I could’ve received after my husband was killed. It focused on validation and simplifying expectations for the truly important things to do in those initial months. It also held hope: for various coping mechanisms, helping others through grief, and in someday being a mother.
Today I want to share another letter with you, one that helped save a relationship when I was intensely grieving and beyond angry with the world. Written seven years earlier, it concentrates on what is helpful and unhelpful while processing loss. For me, the value of this letter was realizing that teaching others about grief creates a safety net among my core group of people. As I have tweaked it for many others, I believe it will work for you, too. Furthermore, I believe that engaging in difficult letters or conversations has the power to also address our culture – the one that is so uncomfortable and untrustworthy with pain. If we want it to change, we have to be willing to speak up and spread the knowledge.
Date: Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Subject: Some Thoughts
Mom and Dad,
I returned from the Boundary Waters safely on Saturday afternoon; I needed some time alone in nature. Today I finally went through all of my mail, voicemail and email from the past week — and I had some pretty strong reactions to some of the messages. Over these past several months I’ve come to realize (and agree with you) that most people are very well-intentioned when talking with me. They genuinely want to comfort or help, but often their comments leave me really upset or hurt. It’s not their fault; they don’t know, but that doesn’t make it easier.
I don’t know if I have a lot of energy to “teach” people what I need to hear or not hear. I know that I need to learn how to deal with these comments when people say them – that they are unavoidable. But it would be so nice to have a “safety net” of sorts – a few people around whom I wouldn’t have to have my guard up.
These are the comments I really wish I’d stop hearing:
- “We are deeply grieving, too/I know what you’re going through.” I know you two, James’ family, and others are grieving, but this comment feels like “I am hurting as much as you are.” I just can’t imagine that is possible. Perhaps this is a selfish way of thinking about it, but it helps when people acknowledge that my pain is different. He was my everything: my best friend, my future, the father of my unborn children, my travel companion, my financial ally, my daily walking partner, etc.
- “James would want _____ for you.” Happiness, another family, etc. When people say this, it makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong and not honoring him. I am looking for pieces of life still, just at my own pace. That’s why I’ve become a Big Sister and found a home in a beautiful neighborhood. Sometimes it feels like people are trying to get me to their version of what happiness looks like; I need to not feel pressure from other people that I’m not correctly grieving or living.
- “Someday you’ll feel different.” Again, it’s really hard for me when people presume that they know how I feel now or how I’ll feel/what I’ll want later, especially because I am young. To assume that I’ll find someone else, have a new family, and be fine invalidates the significance of my marriage: I wanted to be with him the rest of my life. I hate thinking about the future — it feels scary, and anything new feels like a step away from James.
- “May it comfort you that so many people care.” Perhaps it shouldn’t make me angry when people say this, but right now, the only thing I think about when people say that is: It doesn’t comfort me! They go back to their lives after thinking about me for a few minutes. And why would it help? It’s not like someone’s thoughts make me feel less alone or overwhelmed. Furthermore, I don’t feel like a lot of people care. My address book has been rewritten because of all the relationships that have turned away.
- ”God has a plan.” God is really tough for me to talk about. I don’t feel like He’s here, and every time I think to pray, all I want is protection of the family members I have left. That seems pointless, considering I prayed for James’ protection, so it just makes me angry. As does every religious platitude I hear.
I know in reading through this list, you’ll recognize some of these statements as ones you’ve made in the past. I’m not angry with you, and I’m not trying to tell you everything that you’re doing is wrong. That really isn’t the point. The point is that I think if I were a parent and my child was going through this, I would want them to be able to share with me things they were thinking, things that were helpful, things that weren’t helpful. If they could identify those things, I would want to know them. I guess that’s why I’ve decided to send this, because I want to strengthen our relationship.
Times when I don’t have to think about these trigger phrases gives me permission to just “be” and that helps me figure out what I need and how to deal with all of this instead of spending so much energy being angry and thinking of how to respond.
I want you to know that there are things you have done that do help: cooking together, helping with remodeling, baking/decorating cakes, playing games, laughing about fun memories with James and integrating him into conversations. I think sometimes people are reluctant to do this because they don’t want to make me feel sad/think about/miss him if we’re doing something and it appears I’m enjoying myself. I like talking about James, and I’m always thinking about him anyway.
Sorting through all of this is difficult and exhausting for me. I can’t always be rational about it, either. Maybe at some point we can talk about it, but for right now I just want to share all these thoughts with you and have that be it. I understand if this letter and my request that you don’t respond feels unfair or like I’m telling you what you can or can’t say. But…I’m trying. I’m doing the best I can.
My parents were respectful and did not directly respond after this letter. In fact, it was a turning point in our relationship because they started filtering themselves and censoring their words. I know this was challenging at times, as they wanted to pass along some insights of their friends or intelligent authors they were reading; some of that stuff was helpful — later in my journey. Accordingly, there were times that I needed to refer back to this letter, and I did that by using the statement, “I really need you to be my safety net and not say things like that.”
What activities and statements are helpful and unhelpful to you? What do you wish your core group of people would know? Or behave like? It may sound arduous to put this list together and explain it all in your own words, but I think it’s worth the time if you want to have more than a grief group be a safe zone.
Significant losses will always majorly contribute to who we are and how we handle situations. That doesn’t have to mean we live in sadness; I think it’s strength to say that I live with fragments and dichotomies (like fear and joy), and out of that uncertainty and brokenness, I see kaleidoscopes. That’s my euphemism for saying I see new patterns in my shifting pieces.
Everything doesn’t happen for a reason, but we can choose how to use our grief. I found out when I became a teacher (three years after James died), that kids needed to see adults be real, as opposed to stoic figures who have it all figured out. When my students heard my path to becoming an educator, they not only opened up about their wounds, but they brought friends to have lunch with me and talk about how we cope and survive. These were life-changing conversations, and ultimately, the key to help me start writing about my loss.
What could openness do in your life?