Sunday, June 07, 2015

Advice to the Grieving

Sheryl Sandberg's beautiful post about mourning her husband, posted on Facebook last week, reminded me of something I've been meaning to write. This won't be beautiful, but it might be useful.

When my beloved daughter Gillian died in 2001, I had to ask a friend to come to the house to dress my husband for the memorial service because I had reached the limit of my tolerance for anything, even picking out a tie. It didn't matter one way or another to my husband; in the throes of dementia, he thought he lived in a hotel and I was the concierge. To him, my friend was just one more employee. So yes, I know a thing or two about grief. Here are some of the things I learned in the process.

New widows and widowers are advised not to make any big decisions, like selling their homes. I would take that a giant step farther: Don't sell anything, or buy anything, without a second opinion from a level-headed person who isn't grieving. I'm from New York and thought I had my share of street smarts, but people took advantage of me with ease.

I got talked into having some property logged, and what a mess that turned out to be. I had no idea the loggers had the worst reputation in the area, but it wouldn't have been all that hard for someone to find out. I gave away our beautiful 19' high-transom power boat to a guy I hardly knew because he said he always wanted to have a boat so he could take his young son fishing. As far as I know, he never took his son out on the boat at all. He sold it. There were other examples of similarly poor decisions.

Accept the fact that you're a little crazy right now. Yes, grief is crazy-making. It's an altered state. In my case, I didn't mow the lawn for a year or two, and I remember my shock at discovering I hadn't cleaned the cats' litter boxes in weeks. The condition of my house and property reflected my state of mind. It took me a long time to dig my way out of that—and in some ways I'm still digging. Two of my friends, after losing truly adored spouses, were alarmingly vulnerable to romance. Other people have bought cars they couldn't afford, added on to their house, gone on cruises, or done other things that were out of character. See paragraph 3, above, and add "trips," "additions," "remarriage" and "an affair" to the list of things that require a second opinion.

There's no right or wrong way to grieve. We have to do it in our own way. If that means you want to talk and cry and talk and cry, that's okay. It's also okay if you want to sit in silence by yourself. Don't let anyone tell you what you need to do.

Grief hurts. I'm talking about physical discomfort. Just as depression hurts, grief can cause all sorts of aches and pains. When pain started to build up, I knew it was time for a no-holds-barred "good cry." Find yourself a safe place, a virtual padded cell, and yell and scream if you want. But don't use your car. The highway is no place to have a meltdown.

Expect to be blindsided. You'll be thinking about something unrelated to tragedy, something completely benign, then suddenly become engulfed in sadness. Almost like skipping stones on water, our minds jump with astonishing speed from A to B, and C—with C for crying. Even after all these years, it still happens to me sometimes.

Don't ask these two questions: "Why me?" and "What if . . . " are useless and will only make you feel worse. "Why me?" has no answer, except perhaps "Why not you?" and if you embark on an endless string of "What ifs," thinking of all the things you could have done to prevent what happened, you'll only add to the crazy-making. If you try to second-guess your decisions anyway, keep in mind that you don't know what might have come next. If I've learned anything in this life, it is this: We have no idea what's ahead of us.

You've heard it before: Live your life the way they would want you to. It's good advice.

A few things that helped me (in no particular order):  I had no idea I knew so many people who had lost a child until I lost one of my own. Some I didn't know well—like the clerk in the Post Office of a neighboring town—but they were willing to come forward and tell me their stories, and I deeply appreciated it. There were times when I felt like a freak. Knowing others had outlived one of their children helped with that, and with the inevitable guilt about anything that happens on our watch. And it's all our watch.

Friends . . . A friend brought me a stack of books about losing a child, and parts of them were helpful. The one thing I still remember was that I knew I had been changed forever, and the books didn't try to talk me out of that. A friend told me, "Life is neither fair nor unfair. It just is." I found that oddly comforting. A friend who had survived breast cancer said, "You'll be surprised at who is there for you, and who isn't." She was right, and when I wondered about those few who had disappeared into the woodwork after Jill died, I just blew off those thoughts, remembering what Debbie had said.

I can remember a collage of moments with friends . . . Patsy bringing my husband to the memorial service . . . Lindsay helping me stick photos of Jill on huge pieces of foam core . . . Bill crying with me on the porch . . . Mike, who taught me and both of my daughters, hugging me so hard it imprinted my necklace on my chest . . . Cindy arriving when she heard the news, and just staying . . . Geno at my front door, his arms filled with fruit, the only thing I could eat . . . Jennie and Ray providing a beautiful setting for the service, and the lunch, and not letting me pay for anything . . . Linda nailing Jill's blue ribbons to trees to guide the way to the outdoor service . . . Jessica and Art showing up at the service with extra chairs and other things I hadn't thought of . . . Bob and other members of Jill's band playing a song they'd written for her. And many more. So many.

The one thing that helped me more than anything was the sure knowledge that Jill was still very much around, and I would see her again. In her efforts to get my attention and let me know she's okay, Gillian has proved to be every bit as creative and loving in spirit form as she was on this earth. I'm grateful beyond words for the many signs she has sent me, and I hope every grieving person is open—wide open—to signs of their own.

Many of Jill's signs involved animals and plants, but the first one involved her car. As I drove to town the day after she died, I thought, I had no idea we bought Jill the most popular car in the county. I passed them everywhere—her make, model, year, and color, by then 11 years old. A few days later, as I drove in Scranton, rain fell in small sections. It poured in an area around 20 ft. square, then I'd pass that and see no rain, then I'd come across another area of rain about the same size. This went on for blocks. It was like watching special effects in a movie.

Jill is skilled at this, and apparently I'm a good receiver. So if you don't see anything or talk with anyone in your dreams, please take my experience as all the proof you need: The one you love is okay. You will be together again. I know it.