Home > Blogging, Communication, Death, Friends, Love, Relationships > Casting light over fixing grief

Casting light over fixing grief

A week ago, my husband congratulated a friend on the birth of her child.

Today he asked me if he should say anything about the baby’s death. The baby had stopped breathing and could not be resuscitated.

“Yes,” I told Anthony, “Absolutely yes. From reading blogs by people whose children have died, I’ve learned that so many people–friends–disappear when a child dies. Don’t do it on social media, either, where we communicate at instead of with each other. Tell her directly. Please.”

Anthony sent her a text message, which set off a flurry of text exchanges. He relayed the gist of some of the messages as I drove, but my mind had wandered far away.

Why do people disappear? Why do we fade into the background when we are most needed?

I don’t believe for a second the answer is in cruelty or lack of care.

I think it’s the opposite. It’s hard to confront our powerlessness from deep within our love for others. It’s hard to look at their grief so profound and recognize there is neither word nor action capable of stealing it away.

Faced with our powerlessness, I suspect it’s easy to believe we are no longer useful to our bereaved friends, as if our merit as friends is in our ability to fix grief. As if grief can be fixed. As if there is little merit in powerful acts like sitting quietly and listening, holding sob-wracked shoulders, running errands for or otherwise walking with our friends through their grief, understanding these acts of support are as necessary as they are incapable of actually fixing grief. Understanding we will someday need receive these acts ourselves.

When our children are sick, we fret over their fevers. We give them medicine to lessen those fevers, treating fevers as the culprit when they are, in fact, usually an indication the body’s defenses are doing what they’re supposed to: fighting to enable the body’s return to its normal, healthy state. Writes Perri Klass, M.D., “[I]n general, in older children who do not look very distressed, fever is positive evidence of an active immune system, revved up and helping an array of immunological processes work more effectively.”

It’s not the fever but the sickness inspiring the fever that needs be fought.

Grief is a little like a fever that way. The real grievance is loss. Grief isn’t the culprit but the indication that we the bereaved are doing everything we can to find our way back to balance. Fighting grief is not only futile but damaging since experiencing grief, that terrible, encompassing sorrow, is how we fumble our way out of living loss and back into living.

There can be no fixing grief. If we can make peace with this fact, we can be better friends. We can free ourselves from the burdens of trying to fix the unfixable and instead focus on casting upon our bereaved friends whatever light we can. Even knowing sometimes it can’t yet be seen.

The light doesn’t fix grief, no, but when finally seen is an important reminder that there is more than loss to life. That, though some we love have died and can never, ever be replaced, others remain to cherish and be cherished. To be OK with not fixing, just as long as they can be with.

  1. November 21, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    So sorry for your loss. People disappear when you most need it because they have no idea how to help. Sad but ppl always do that

    • November 22, 2014 at 5:45 am

      Thank you. It’s been a while since my last loss, fortunately. This was more my trying to make sense of how awkward things get after someone dies, though I’d envisioned a different post when I started writing …

  2. November 21, 2014 at 11:08 pm

    Sad, and true. We don’t know what to say, and say nothing. Grief has its own season and its own timing and its own rules. And there are no RIGHT words – but disappearance is wrong.

    • November 22, 2014 at 5:48 am

      Exactly so. I suddenly find myself wishing I could find a blog I read maybe a month ago. One lady in the midst of mourning wrote a list of suggestions for approaching a friend’s grief.

      The suggestion that sticks with me most profoundly is one saying, roughly, it’s never too late to say you’re sorry for someone’s loss. I agree with her that it’s better to say it after six months or a year than to feel the window has passed and the earlier silence can never be remedied.

  3. November 22, 2014 at 3:12 am

    People own their words and their actions when tragedy, such as a loss of a child, happens. Living with my own devastating loss last year of my youngest child has taught me that actions speak louder than words because there are no words to adequately comfort or describe what it is like to live without my daughter. After being hurt by others, of course not always intentionally, I have learned that their reaction, or lack thereof, is in no way a reflection of the value of my daughter’s life, but more a reflection of themself. I assure you I understand that many do not know what to say or do in a tragedy, but hallelujah for those who do.

    • November 22, 2014 at 6:04 am

      Thank you for sharing your experience with this. Hallelujah indeed for those who offer support.

      For me, the words weren’t as important as long as the intention was clear, and the intention could be discerned even through most awkward words or silences. But in the complete absence of word or action, no intention could be discerned. I wondered where certain people went, and why they’d gone.

      I sat down last night to reflect on what it would be like to lose a child (having spent much of the afternoon looking at my kids and wondering how I’d go on if either died), but when I sat down, I found I wanted to make sense of this. From here, I don’t think there’s any sense to be made of loss of a child … but I sure as heck don’t want my inability to comprehend the magnitude of that grief to keep me from trying to show my support and love.

      I don’t know Anthony’s friend personally, so in this case, a simple sorry will probably be all I proffer. I’m glad Anthony reached out with more.

  4. nicciattfield
    November 22, 2014 at 4:19 am

    It’s painful to watch grief. At the same time, I remember how much it helped to have people care, and what a difference it makes. I remember one very clumsy student friend who brought flowers and explained how unhelpful he felt by saying “I don’t know if it is okay, but I always bring flowers when someone pegs…” there was no poetry there, but he enabled me to laugh, and I was grateful that he had done it. I think no matter how clumsy or unhelpful we feel, having somebody there is always so meaningful.

    Death though, is so horrible, and raw grief so painful to watch. Best wishes to Anthony’s friend.

    • November 22, 2014 at 6:22 am

      I remember a few moments of laughter, too, though I don’t remember the words!

      Earlier this week I called a friend whose mom is dying and found myself saying, “Whatever you do or don’t feel, or do, it’s all OK, you know?” My eyes widened the moment I actually heard what I’d just said. I fumbled through follow up to the tune of, “Which, of course, you know. Very profound of me. Sorry.” I can’t recall if she actually laughed, but her response reminded me it can be OK to be awkward and fumbling as long as I’m trying.

      I felt so grateful for one friend in particular. Many grew quiet, but this friend came over and sat with me on an air mattress in my mom’s freezing living room shortly before Mom died. She brought food, but mostly, she brought her presence. Her presence–no matter what words she did or didn’t say–was such an enormous gift, like saying with her soul, “There is no experience too awkward or sad to keep me away.” When my mom staggered out delirious, my friend didn’t bat an eyelash, just talked to her as if it were any ol’ day. Having never really dealt significantly with death-related loss before that, I learned so much from her. I am now not afraid of learning more, though I know I will probably sometimes say exactly the worst thing possible.

      Thank you for your care and words. ♥

      • nicciattfield
        November 23, 2014 at 12:14 am

        You know, that ” Whatever you feel is OKAY…” comment actually helped me so much…I thought I was going mad, and to know that it was okay to feel helped me when somebody said it. It gave a sense of steady ground to grief.

        Interestingly, in trauma counselling, somebody came to do research on the place I was working…what helped and what didn’t…’however you feel, it’s okay…’ was on the board with most helped statements…

        Sometimes the things we think are kind of silly have a massive impact!!!

        • November 24, 2014 at 1:49 pm

          Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this! I felt so foolish after I said this straight up through the moment I read your comment. (It then became part of A’s message in the guest book.)

  5. November 22, 2014 at 6:09 am

    There is nothing like death to make us face our own mortality. Particularly with the death of a child, acknowledgement of someone else’s loss means acknowledgement that the loss could have been ours and that tiny glimpse of the pain is difficult to bear. Human nature is to stay away from things that make us hurt… a hot stove, a bully, even grief. Blessed are those individuals who bear and brave that pain to bring comfort to others.

    • November 22, 2014 at 6:34 am

      This is such a beautiful comment. Thank you.

      It inspired me to visit an old post, the single one in which I name Li’l D. I’d avoided reading one particular blog series about a child’s death to cancer for the exact reason you describe. The mere thought of losing my sunshine was too brutal to face.

      I did end up reading that blog series. It changed so much about my perspective. After jumping that hurdle, I was glad to have stepped up and faced the reality that kids die, and that I have no guarantees whatsoever mine will live the 100 years I’d love them to see.

      I still don’t know exactly what it’s like to lose a child, but I have a much better idea. What I do know for sure now, having read through those heartbreaking, illuminating blogs, is that I’d rather a million times over say the wrong thing and let someone know I care than say nothing at all. What I struggle with now is being so distant from so many of my friends. I want to provide practical support in rough times–for the things I just couldn’t think about for weeks after my mom died–but I haven’t yet sorted out how from a distance. So I send words of love, wishing so much I could do more.

      • November 22, 2014 at 7:12 am

        What I hear from grieving families is that words are just fine. They are enough. 🙂

  6. November 22, 2014 at 6:43 am

    Yes, Victo Dolores, blessed are those … And you are right that many shy away from us because if it could happen to me … well suffice to say, a little voice reminds them that their journey is not over. I have lost a father and a brother, even watched my niece struggle after she lost her precious 5 month old son, but nothing in the universe prepared me to lose my child. You can’t fix it or truly understand it unless you carry the invisible wound. It’s unimaginable. But compassion is the unspoken language that is felt. A card drawn by a 6 year old with a crayon and with a wilted weed taped to the front is probably my favorite expression of love so far. It simply said “thinking of you.”

  7. November 22, 2014 at 6:48 am

    I have a friend in the throes of grief right now, and every day, I feel like I’m failing her, like I’m not doing enough. And I don’t even know what to do. Thank you for this beautiful notion, which is such a huge help:

    “There can be no fixing grief. If we can make peace with this fact, we can be better friends. We can free ourselves from the burdens of trying to fix the unfixable and instead focus on casting upon our bereaved friends whatever light we can. Even knowing sometimes it can’t yet be seen.”

    • November 24, 2014 at 1:55 pm

      I believe that your willingness to be with her, whether in person or spirit, even not knowing what exactly to do or say, is the opposite of failing her. I am heartened by the love in your words.

      Also … sometimes I have moments where I ask myself why the heck I keep on blogging. Then I read a comment like yours and remember: Because these words we offer up between ourselves help show different parts of the world, growing understanding and healing. They clarify the connection between us, no matter what similarities and dissimilarities in individual experience.

  8. lishawrites
    November 22, 2014 at 7:54 am

    You and I find words therapeutic. But many don’t. My sympathies to your friend, and my prayers for all her dear ones.

    • November 24, 2014 at 1:59 pm

      That’s why I feel it’s important to show up–if possible, in whatever form that takes–and see what’s needed, whether that’s words, a hand, or presence alone.

      A (funny) memory from Orcalab has popped into my head countless times the last few days. I didn’t really understand why until just now. Two of my fellow assistants really enjoyed company, but were irritated how many pesky words everyone else used. They found a groove together that was funny from the outside but worked beautifully for them. (I’ll probably write more on that elsewhere.)

  9. November 22, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    You are so right. While there is nothing to be done to fix the grief, knowing that the people who you care about are thinking of you and care about you too is so important in those times. People think because there is nothing they can say to make it better they should say nothing, but that’s not the case. Even just a small message saying you are thinking of them is so appreciated. With the understanding that no reply is expected.

  10. November 22, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    So true. I just returned from a memorial service today, it was the 3rd anniversary of my friend’s son’s death. She is Asian, and in her tradition they gather friends and family at the grave each year to remember, honor and celebrate the life of the loved one who has moved on to the next world. She hosted a lunch at her home to continue the celebration afterward. I think it must be the most difficult thing to lose a child, and I could see how much this meant to her that many family friends came to honor her son.

  11. November 22, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    Your advice was spot on, Deb. Acknowledge. Sympathies. Accept grief.

    In our society, you are allowed obvious grief for a very short time before you’re expected to “get on with it.” Death happens and so does grief. Our society would do better to accept both.

  12. November 23, 2014 at 11:21 am

    When my brother passed (and with the 10 year age difference he was like a son to me) I had several friends tell me “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to help, but I want you to know I am here for you”, ,and I can’t tell you how much that love and support felt! And really, my brain stopped functioning – I did’t know something needed done until they said “How are you getting the flowers home?” Oh, yeah, that. And so she volunteered to help with that. Or “what are you feeding everyone that comes over after the service?” Oh yeah, that… 🙂
    so yes, I think we can feel powerless when our friends/family experience loss, but just reaching out is so powerful! Great post!

  13. November 23, 2014 at 10:51 pm

    When a person is the one experiencing disappearing friends following the death of a child, it’s hard NOT to feel like it’s cruel or uncaring. It’s been nearly 13 years for me, and I still struggle with understanding and forgiving those who disappeared when we needed them the most. It’s not something I think about so much any more and it hasn’t held me hostage, but I find myself shaking my head with disbelief when I think of it even now. I understand, but I don’t understand. There is no fixing grief, but just “being there” – and continuing to “be there” long after the fact – would mean a lot.

  14. November 24, 2014 at 10:41 am

    This is a beautiful post and very well expressed. I had a visit not long ago from a very dear old friend whom I hadn’t seen since before my daughter passed away. Dear soul, she was trying so hard to make things better, but I had to encourage her, “It’s okay, I am living with loss, that’s as good as it can be.” Such losses are not fixable. But grief can be made more or less bearable those who stand / don’t stand alongside.

  15. November 24, 2014 at 10:44 am

    Reblogged this on A Valley Journal and commented:
    This is the first time that I can remember reblogging a post from someone else’s blog, and I’m not sure where it will appear on my site (which I’m having a tough enough time figuring out how to organise), but that’s a small matter. What is written here matters.

  16. June 29, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    How did I miss this, Deb? I have tried so hard to explain to people after we lost Georgie that being present is enough. This is spot on, thank you so much, I will share it for my friends on Facebook.xx

    • June 29, 2015 at 7:34 pm

      Oh, Oana. I know I’ve said it before, but I am just sending so much love as I think what my family I can do a week from now.

      There will be a picture, or two. I don’t know of what. But you will be in our hearts, whatever it is we capture in that picture.

      So much love to you. ♥

      • June 29, 2015 at 7:40 pm

        And that is ALL I need and will be eternally grateful for! That my Georgie is remembered and never forgotten. It does not matter what, it can be anything, even of a flower or the sky. It’s the love behind the gesture that brings comfort. Much love to you too.xx

  1. November 23, 2014 at 6:49 pm
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