November is the month of gratitude, and so I wish to express my love and gratitude for my companion and teacher, Bentley, who died in my arms October 2nd. 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. 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 soothe, 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.