I’m twenty-thousand feet above the earth, carefully carrying rosemary with me as I fly across the country to join lifelong friends I consider my second family. Together we will say farewell to their beloved patriarch who recently passed from life to Life. I'm bringing the herb as a comfort offering, and hope it will be just that. But walking the minefields of grief with someone can be tricky. It's sometimes hard to know what to say or do in the wake of loss.
A while back, two of my dearest friends both lost their fathers on the same day. I, who still had my parents at the time, thought I understood what they were going through. But the truth is I couldn’t understand because I hadn’t experienced that kind of emotional smack upside the heart. It’s like reading about France versus living in France. They’re not the same. I only realized this a few months later when my own dad passed and then, eighteen months after that, when I lost my mom, too. Experience is a valuable teacher that showed me the difference between walking in grief and watching grief.
So how can we really help someone who’s feeling the sharp pain of jagged-edged loss?
Perhaps the most important way is to simply be there. One of my gurus, therapist extraordinaire, Brad Reedy (author of the amazing book, Journey of the Heroic Parent), recently wrote:
“In my greatest grief or sorrow, the most comforting thing I have been offered is the voice of a friend saying, “You are not alone… I am here with you.”
If there’s only one thing you do, be there. Doggie paddle with a dear one who is drowning in the turbulent waters of grief. It’s not easy to sit in that sad space, but find the heart, the courage and the compassion to do it anyway. It is the best balm we can offer one another. If you can’t be there in person, show up with phone calls and texts. I was amazed at the incredible healing power of conversations and messages when I was navigating life post-death.
My circle of other dear, experienced, wise ones and I suggest a few more things that also helped us deal with overwhelming loss. Experts agree on these:
If you’re a believer, pray for the one who’s grieving. If he’s a believer and he’s open to it, pray with him. Time and again, it amazes and overwhelms me to see the ways God shows up in the darkness of sorrow. In my experience, if you invite Him in, He’ll come.
Thinking is a tall order when you’re mourning. Rather than asking how you can help, consider what might be needed and then offer to do those tasks. Maybe it’s picking up groceries, or getting the kids at school, helping to tackle a mountain of paperwork, or being there when it’s time to sort through the belongings left behind after loss. Dealing with death is hard work and there are lots of ways to serve.
It’s okay to cry, too. Our tears flow because we share one another’s grief. It’s also okay to laugh together. No doubt, in the next few days, I will do plenty of both.
People who grieve are processing a life-changing loss. That’s big work that doesn’t happen fully over the course of a few days or weeks or months. Grief eases and then rises again out of nowhere. My brother-in-law, Craig, calls these, “waves,” an apt name because they surprise you, knocking you down when you least expect it. It's important to not only be tolerant, but also to be compassionate when these hit. Don’t expect the griever to get over it on your schedule. Or any schedule. Grief is a personal process that's done in a thousand different ways and has no expiration date.
Share fond memories of the loved one who’s gone. Don’t be afraid to talk about him. Say his name. As time goes on, continue to remember him. Put his birthday on your calendar and call your friend on that day and ask how she’s doing. Same with the date the loved one died. Do something with your friend to honor her lost loved one. I go for ice cream every year on my father's birthday, often with my sons. It was our favorite thing and this small remembrance keeps him near.
Small gestures mean a lot. Before I left home today, I cut sprigs of rosemary from my garden and added a sweet memorial tag to each one, which I’ll give to my dear friends when I arrive. This aromatic plant is the herb of remembrance. When you hold it, the smell remains long after it’s gone. This isn’t an extravagant gesture, but it’s meaningful and, I hope, comforting.
Stick around. People tend to be there for the grieving in the first days and weeks of loss, but then they get busy with their own lives. Remember that the first year is full of painful triggers: the first birthday, first Father’s Day, first anniversary, first Christmas. Some say the second year isn’t much easier. Keep checking in. Keep calling. Keep talking. Keep remembering.
In all circumstances, being there matters. It’s a privilege to love people through hard circumstances. In this way, death teaches us how to live, how to love, and how to really be there for one another. And that makes it, in all its darkness and sadness and difficulty, its own sort of beautiful thing.
Peace and love, Underdogs. Lots and lots of love.....