So much about my mom dying and her death actually reminds me of being pregnant: the tendency for people not only to project their own feelings and experiences onto you, but also to decide that they know "exactly" how you feel, must be feeling, are supposed to feel. I am not judging anyone for this, because I'm sure that I have done it as well, and I also feel fortunate that I was in a place to work with that instead of having it piss me off or separate me from others who are just doing their best to connect. It's like someone talking about the weather. They don't really care that much about the weather, but are reaching out to connect in a non-threatening way. How could I not accept that?
What I can't do, however, is to deny how and what I'm actually feeling. I can't actually agree with that person who tells me that I "must" be __________. If you have decided that I must be that, and I'm not that, I don't really feel like you are open to hearing how I actually am. And so instead I just say, "yeah." And I tell you about how I'm back at work or how Selah is doing or how I'm really okay but without salient details. And again I am not trying to be belligerent, but I do want to hold up a mirror and offer some of what I learned about bereavement during this experience.
Finally, if I had a nickel for every offer of "anything" that I received, I would have Selah's college tuition saved already. Last year Bruce Feiler wrote an article in the New York Times about What to Say to Someone Who is Sick , and I think it applies to someone who is dying as well as to someone who is grieving. Again, it's not that I am ungrateful for the attention and the genuine concern that is behind the statement, "If you need anything, just say the word/just call me/let me know." You have to understand that what this conveys is, "I am so sorry that this is a challenging time for you and so sorry you're hurting. I wish I could do something to help to alleviate any pain or stress or discomfort that you're feeling but I have no idea what to do. So I am going to offer you 'anything' and then you can do the work if you are desperate and actually want to ask me for something." It is a conversation ender, and I'm never going to ask you for 'anything' or anything. To counter the absurdity, dad started asking people to paint the house. "Let me know if you need anything," someone would say. "Well, all that trim on the house does need to be repainted." he would offer. Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle, uncomfortable silence, annnnnddd... end of conversation.
I don't know if reading this makes you feel mad or guilty or whatever, but there is nothing coming from me but communication. I'm not upset. It was tedious to hear 1,000 times but then it was so common it became an anthropological mystery to me that I was interested in observing. Instead, the next time someone you love is in crisis, make them food and bring it to them. Send a card that says "I love you." Give a practical gift card to a place like Roche Brothers as one of my thoughtful colleagues did. Check in unthreateningly and with no expectation of response, via text message, regularly. Anticipate where slack can be picked up, and pick it up without making the person go out of his/her way. Don't treat them like someone in the midst of a psychotic break. Make a joke.
For us, we were an excellent three-person team and were able to pick up one another's slack. We had enough time and space to rotate so that one or two people could leave at a time, either to go to the store (my dad and I both participate in grocery store therapy) or to the gym or to a yoga class or even to work. It's true that my dad did the lion's share of the caregiving and cooking (stovetop therapy for all of us), but the fact that we were there together and often had Selah's bubbly comic relief meant that most of our needs were covered. When relatives called I would be sure to tell them that we were all showered and fed and that the house was clean. This makes it hard to assert your love and care into the situation, but the dishes people brought over were welcomed and appreciated, as were the other visits and sentiments. Please, just remove "anything" from your vocabulary.
Wow. I guess I needed to vent that stuff a little bit before getting to the heart of my experience. The theme of this post that will string into the next is, "Take care of yourself, your own emotions, your circumstances, so that you may be present for others in their time of need. Bearing witness and exercising compassion is a reflective action, and you don't want to offer someone a dirty mirror. Clean it up so you can offer back beauty and pure support."