Listening to the Story of Grief
November 5, 2014
November 5, 2014
My husband Kevin Brooks and I met on a dark Tuesday night in the basement of a used bookstore. We were both attending a storytelling event. I remember the first story I heard him tell, the way it made me feel and the click when we talked afterwards. He remembered the same things about me. I can’t say it was love at first sight, but it was certainly like and, a few years later when it became love, I don’t think anyone was really surprised.
We were together for 15 years of laughter, love and story. We told each other the story of a long life together and a comfortable, crotchety old age. That’s not the way our story worked out. In March 2014 my beloved husband died at 55 from pancreatic cancer. I suppose everyone who has lost someone they love says, “It wasn’t supposed to end this way.”
I find myself in a new story, one where I am learning to live in a world without his ongoing presence. It’s indescribably hard. I don’t think anyone is really surprised by that either.
As I struggle to understand this new life, friends and family surround me. I couldn’t craft this new life without them but sometimes my story scares someone and they say the wrong thing. There isn’t really a right thing to say to someone who is grieving deeply, because nothing can bring their loved one back, but there are painful things said with the best of intentions. Each time this happens I remind myself that the mistake was made out of love. Each time this happens I wish there was a manual the bereaved could hand out so maybe these mistakes would happen less often.
Here are a few things to remember the next time you are with someone who has lost a loved one and is grieving. While this is written from my point of view, I expect these tips would be useful for others, too.
- You don’t know how I feel. Comparisons aren’t useful.
Every grief is different. Losing a spouse is different from losing a parent is different from losing a child, a sibling, a friend, a pet, a community, a job. While each grief has some similarities in emotion and expression, everyone copes with it differently and needs permission to do so. Listen. Be honest. Be present. Be patient.
- My grief is not about you.
While sincere and well-intended, it is often difficult when people tell me how much they miss Kevin. I know he was wonderful, I was married to him. I know you miss him too but trust me, we are grieving differently and I may not have the energy to console you. Please don’t expect the person who is grieving to comfort you; they need your comfort. Please don’t tell the mourner how much their loss frightens you. I’ve had countless people tell me they think they would die if their spouse died, then ask how can I survive it. This doesn’t comfort me, it isolates me.
- Platitudes rarely help.
“He’s with God now.”
“God needed another angel.”
“It was his time.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll meet someone new.”
I’m pretty angry at God these days so talking with me about His plan doesn’t help. What’s more, you and I may not share the same beliefs. Losing my loved one was my worst nightmare and it has come true. Telling me it’s for the best, that he can be replaced or that my timetable of grief isn’t aligned with yours does not help. No matter how much you may want to fix my grief, you can’t; to live is to grieve. You can be present with me as I experience it.
There are so many ways you can help, but they all come down to these two:
- Listening never hurts.
I need to talk about Kevin, his life and his death. By listening without interruption or judgment you assure me that whatever I am feeling is okay. That you accompany me on my journey. Let me tell you my story because really I am telling it to myself.
- Presence matters.
It helps when I know you are there and can reach to you. It helps more when you decide to call me instead of waiting for me to pick up the phone. Your presence, support and love mean more than I can ever tell you, even if I may not seem grateful in the moment. When you accept me as I am, grieving or not, when you listen to my story and honor it, I remember that my life still has value and meaning, even if the one I loved most is gone.
Grief is a basic part of the human experience. Our oldest recorded story, Gilgamesh, has the loss of a friend as a pivotal point in the story. As long as humans have loved, we have grieved and sought ways to understand the loss.
As a storyteller I’m lucky. It is second nature for me to tell Kevin’s story, to write and speak about my own experiences as one who has walked my beloved to his death. Here’s the secret. We all are storytellers and listeners. We all can remember those who have gone before us. We all can listen to each other as we mourn and celebrate the lives we have loved. None of us need walk this path alone.