So many people get stuck when it comes to comforting someone who is grieving. They don’t know what to say. They don’t know what to do. So they send flowers, they bring over a casserole for the already filled to the brim freezer, they send a sweet card, or in some cases they just avoid the issue entirely, thinking maybe it will just go away. Even some of the people go away.
Almost immediately after my son Paul’s funeral, people began to disappear. Perhaps they were threatened or couldn’t face the realities of my life. Maybe my loss and grief brought too many reminders of the losses and grief in their own lives. Maybe they thought what I had just experienced was contagious.
For someone who is grieving, any kind of human contact and kindness helps except avoidance and disappearance.
A death by suicide makes the situation even more touchy because people don’t like to say that word out loud. Even my mother couldn’t say the word “suicide” after my son took his life. When people asked her what happened, all she could say was, “something terrible.” And she criticized me for being so open when she heard me telling friends who came to our house any of the details. Her behavior during the early months after my son’s death was more a hindrance than a comfort to me.
My greatest comfort after our son’s death came from my next-door neighbor, Patty. My husband and I had her family over for dinner when they moved into their house, and we went out to dinner with her and her husband once in a while, but she and I were just a bit more than cool acquaintances.
I had always found her too loud – I could hear her yelling at her stepson and son through both our exterior walls. And I thought she was too nosy – she always seemed to poke her nose outside whenever I was out in the garden. She was just too domineering and much too pushy for my taste. I couldn’t believe her chutzpah when she appeared at our door with her oldest daughter and a six-pack of beer as soon as she found out we had two young, handsome, male houseguests – my nephew and his friend – staying with us for a few weeks. That was the end of my patience – for a while.
After my Paul died, she really came through. She offered to put up out-of-town relatives, she brought over bagels and cream cheese in the mornings while we had hordes of people in and out of our house, and she supplied the coffee for the open house after the funeral. She was just there in a very quiet nonintrusive way – a way that I had never seen in her before. Also, the word “suicide” didn’t make her back off.
Patty left a basket on my doorstep just before the first Thanksgiving we were without Paul. Her note said that she dreaded the holidays after her mother died, so she gathered a few things to ease the holiday season for me. As I read her note and looked through the basket, I cried, not only out of the dread of not having Paul with us on Thanksgiving, Hanukah, and his New Year’s Eve birthday, but for the generosity and caring of a person I hardly knew and had never liked very much. In such a quiet and unassuming way, she showed me real human compassion and understanding. And most important to me at that time, she never asked me a lot of questions or intruded on my privacy. She just let me know she was there if I needed her.
Among the items in the basket – each one separately wrapped – was a poetry book about coping with the loss of a love, and that was the first book after Paul’s death that I managed to read. A journal, a sweet smelling candle, a box of delicious chocolate covered graham crackers, and a smooth gray stone were also in the basket.
This stone became my biggest comfort. Just large enough to fit in the palm of my hand, it feels the perfect size when I close my hand around it. One edge is round and the other is triangular. One side is plain; the other has the word “son” carved into it. Right after Patty left the basket on my doorstep, my little stone became my friend.
I took it to bed with me. Once settled, I placed it on my chest just between my breasts. I liked its coldness on my heart. It helped me relax. Holding it in my hand and reading the word with my thumb also helped. I carried it around in my pocket for a while during the day just to feel it close to me. And then, I began to wonder about my own sanity. Was I trying to exchange my son for a stone?
When I began to feel better, I let go of it and let it rest on another item from that basket – a little, silk-covered, lavender sachet pillow with butterflies and the word “heal” painted on the silk. These two gifts from Patty are still there on my bedside table after all these years.
I’m sorry to say, Patty died this year after a two and a half year battle with pancreatic cancer. Now I miss hearing her voice from the other side of our fence. I miss seeing her out in her garden from my office window. I’ll always remember her kindness and understanding at my greatest time of need.
Madeline Sharples 2012