What To Say When Someone Has Died.

It’s been one of those weeks. I realize the title of this post is a little dry, emotionless, business-like even. But I don’t mean it that way. It’s been something I’ve thought and written about before, and in the wake of tragedy the words have been busying my brain. (Hence me writing now, at 3:30 am)

A good friend of mine lost her love suddenly and tragically this week. I hardly knew him at all, but of course in the hazy aftermath of the realization that he’s gone, and the strong sadness I feel for my friend who lost him, we all can’t help that feeling that so often comes in death, sudden or not. He was too young. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Things like this happen to other people. Death is always a knock at someone else’s door. Rarely do we feel accepting when it knocks at our own. Or comes into our neighborhood anyway.

The worst of it is, there truly isn’t much to say in these situations. And as humans, as fixers and problem solvers, it leaves us all a little stumped. A little quiet. There are few words I can think to say to my friend who lost him. Accept to hold on. That we as friends will hold her hand through it. That it will be OK. But first it will be hard and trying and she already knows that. One day at a time I would tell her. Some days, one hour.

As having lost a dad to cancer–a slower death, and a step dad to heart attack- an abrupt and unforseen death, I can say that both are difficult in different ways. At least in cancer  you have time to prepare your affairs to some extent. I remember my father in his bathrobe, stick thin except for his swollen legs, on our back patio in the sun picking out music for his funeral. Laughing. Having a wonderful time. And that memory really sticks with me. It made me for once, unafraid of death. With my step-father it was different. No preparation, no time to really process it. He was here and then he wasn’t. Alive then in the ground. And what do you say to a mother who loses the second love of her life? How do you convince her there is design in all this? In the depth and solitude of grief, it’s hard to find reason in any of it. I know that feeling very well. And vague phrases about life and God and a reason for things, often fall flat. In the moment of pain, you just have to feel it and grieve it and keep on going. This is life after all. Peaks and valleys. And here I go with the vague phrases about our temporary existence. I’ll stop.

What I really want to say, is that I feel a real duty in being there for humankind when they lose someone they love. Mostly because I remember what helped and what didn’t in past times of tragedy. And also because there is no education in all this. No preparation in school for what to say and how to act when someone we know has died. And for anyone reading this, it may seem abundantly clear how lacking we are in this culture of behavior in death. There is, or maybe there should be etiquette in it. And so many lack it. I remember a family friend calling after we lost Roger. “What are you guys going to do?!?!” She pleaded to me on the phone. “And your sister is getting married next week!! In the same place your mother was married?! What will she do? Will your mother keep the house?!” I sat on the phone quiet, with tears running down my face. “I don’t know” is all I could say. And then, silence. Because I didn’t know. There was no way to know what to do next. Like I said, one day at a time. I just remember thinking that asking so many questions at that time wasn’t very helpful. In fact, it was the opposite. It’s not at all a time to start changing major life plans or rearranging things. Mourning is a process, and we have to be patient. The most helpful people in that time of crisis, were those who made small decisions for my mother, and didn’t bombard her with questions. A house in a time of grief is filled with flowers and food sent and relatives and friends. There are logistical things to take care of. There is damage control to do. And that’s what we all did for my mom, attempting not to bother her with details. I know this sounds perverted, but in some ways it can be a really beautiful time. It is when we truly acknowledge what it is to be human. We show our love without hesitation. We hold each other in tears and cry with them or let them cry on us. With this embrace we communicate that their pain is our pain too. In death we’re all the same.

I am a severe lover of animals and what they can teach human beings. (Far more than we give them credit for, I think) In grief I am reminded of elephants, one of the only other animals that are noted to grieve physically. They allow themselves to cry. They can be seen caressing the body after the animal has died, and different, distinct behavior can be observed of a matriarch even years after she loses a baby. Surviving elephants are known to stand together in their herd by the body of a fallen one in silence and stillness. Undoubtedly, they exude sorrow and seem to have some sort of formal grieving process, even beyond physical tears. Whenever I think of someone who will need help in their grief, I think of the elephants, standing by one another. They seem to convey to us, it’s not something to do alone.

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I remember at the time of Rogers death, some of the most poignant times and helpful moments were those with no words at all. As each of my mothers four children and two step children made their way to our house, each hugged my mom, and both simply cried. I remember her weak voice, but her warm body when we hugged for a while. I live closest to home so I was the first kid to get there. Walking up our porch steps I thought “What will I say?” When we met eyes all she said was my name and then we hugged and cried together for what felt like a long time. But truly, that seemed the mose appropriate thing to do. The only thing to do. There were no words to say then. Helping someone grieve and truly being there for a fellow family member or friend is not so much a matter of having the right words to say but more a matter of simply being there. A warm body to embrace when the reality is too much. A literal shoulder to cry on. Someone who allows us our sadness.

For many people, the crying makes them uncomfortable, or the silence does. But crying is just a part of our grief and something we have to do. It’s a sign of us coming to terms with death. It will come out some way or another. We’re so quick to hush the griever and tell them its OK. But I think it’s acceptable to admit that things suck right now and the creator seems like an idiot and even crack jokes when the timing is right. I never cried or laughed so much as the week that Roger died. Which may sound morbid but it really wasn’t. Someone’s death brings on too the celebration of their life. It’s a time to tell stories and toast to their quarks and remember their beauty. Crying and laughter will ensue, sometimes in the same breath. And maybe even drunken debauchery. At any rate, I want to tell my friend, and anyone in the throes of grief, that it’s OK to cry and it’s OK to laugh and it’s OK to throw plates at the wall. Anything you feel is OK honestly, and you just need to do what feels right to you. There’s no right way to do it.

I didn’t have an answer for the woman on the phone with so many questions before. I couldn’t have known that a year later my mother would fall in love with the brother of my dads best friend and that even a tragic story like this would have its own happy ending. And maybe that was one of the biggest things Rogers death showed me; it was an end, but not the end. The story would go on. And that’s what I want my friend and anyone in the depths of despair to know. The only adage that gave me hope was remembering that This too shall pass. And it did.

Health, Happiness, Grief.