A friend of mine is losing his mother. They’re to the hospice stage now. Having just lost Leroy a few months ago (3 months ago today, actually) how we say “good bye” has been very much on my mind. Leroy’s passing wasn’t my first trip to the rodeo–I’m at that point in life where the world begins shrinking, a grandfather here, an uncle there, a father here, a Leroy there. I’ve been reflecting on how I did–or didn’t–say good bye in each instance. The most traumatic passing was probably my dad’s, largely because of the family issues that surrounded it. I couldn’t say “good bye.” I didn’t cry for him for a year. The odd thing is that, as awful as that time in my life was, it taught me more about saying “good bye” than any other death I’ve experienced. The lessons from that terrible time were many. Here are a few of them.
1. Nobody really understands what you’re going through. Grief is an intensely personal thing–as unique as the relationship between two people. No one can know what you’re experiencing, the things that cause you pain–or the things that bring you comfort. Each of us walks through grief alone, not because no one wants to be there for us, but because no one really can. Yes, family, friends, and even strangers can throw a lifeline, but in that deep, intimate place where we grieve, we are alone.
2. I relied on the kindness of strangers. When Dad was dying, the people in my parents’ church brought food. I remember one woman in particular. She didn’t come inside, even. She just showed up, handed off a big pot of soup, smiled, and left. That touched me deeply. I learned from that. Now when people I know lose someone I take food, not because I think they’re broke, but because the kindness of strangers is a lifeline.
I also started offering my design services for free to grieving families. It started by accident; my local Kinko’s called me one day and asked if I could help a customer. They knew I did design work because in those days Kinko’s was where I printed out my proofs. I drove down to Kinko’s and met the woman. It wasn’t hard to pick her out; people who have just lost a loved one often look gobsmacked. She couldn’t focus. She had a hard time articulating things. Making decisions was completely beyond her. I found myself thinking like a teacher, rather than a designer. I found us a table in a quiet corner. We sat down. I thought of all the platitudes: “How sad you must feel,” “What a terrible loss,” “He’s in a better place now,” thought of my dad’s incredibly complex death, and realized that I didn’t know if she felt sad, if she felt loss or relief, or even if she thought of him in heaven. I didn’t know her, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have really understood her feelings. In the end I just said, “Tell me about your husband.”
And she did. She told me that he had been the postmaster for years, that he loved his church, that his family was important to him. She told me stories. She cried. She laughed. And I realized that we would put together a program that captured something of her husband’s essence–it would be a way of not just letting mourners know who was doing what, but of really honoring a person who had been here, and now wasn’t, at least not in the same way. More than that, though, she reminded me that because grief is personal, having someone try to assign you to a category, to tell you what they are sure you must be feeling, is really not helpful. What is helpful is being invited to talk about what you are experiencing, who the person you have lost was to you, who they are to you now, who you were with them, and who you might be without them. Grief is a time for listening.
I’ve done a lot of memorial programs since then, and they all start with the same question: “Tell me about…” And when they have told me, we turn the program into something intensely personal–the lace off a mother’s wedding dress might become the background, an award or medal might become part of the front, a lifelong unrealized dream might become part of the interior. I offer my hands, and my ears. I treasure those times. It’s my way of returning the sense of love I felt from that woman standing on my parents’ porch, holding a soup pot.
3. Start before you need to. Grief is debilitating and overwhelming. The paradox of loss is that when you are experiencing it, it can be very difficult to actually think of a way of expressing it–of saying “good bye” in a way that’s meaningful to you. When Dad was sick my sister and I took the time to sit down with him and watch old slides. It was something he loved to do. In his younger years he loved driving up into the mountains with the camera and taking pictures of wild flowers. He didn’t pick them for pressing–he was a proponent of “leave it as you found it” long before that was popular. Those slides were his flower collection. They were important to him. As we watched them my sister and I listened to his breathy voice talking about the ones he loved the most, and my sister laid those aside, had them drum-scanned, and sent them to me. I used them to build Dad’s memorial bulletin. As I worked I cried–building that became an important part of saying “good bye,” and would probably have remained intensely meaningful had all hell not broken loose between the time I made the bulletin and the time we used it.
When Leroy had his second heart attack and he told me he just wanted to enjoy the time he had left, I remembered Dad’s bulletin. I came home, and I started going through pictures. Before he came home from the hospital I took the time to write down what he meant to me. I talked to The Boy, and suggested that he consider how he might want to say “good bye,” precisely because when the time came, thought–particularly coherent thought–might be difficult. On Leroy’s last birthday, we took him to the casino. While Leroy played “21” and the slot machines, The Boy wrote him a song.
And then we came home. I took the song, typed it into the computer, and then we were done. Three and a half months later Leroy left us. I was figuring out death certificates, supporting The Boy, working with the mortician in organizing the cremation, planning a quiet afternoon for the people who loved Leroy best. Had I waited to gather all the pieces something would surely have been left out. But I had planned ahead. I had pictures. I had words. I built a powerpoint and added music. And then I looked at it and realized what I really had was a book–so I made one, and because we had delayed the memorial service, I was able to get the books printed in time to give them to the people closest to him. Planning ahead was necessary, since I didn’t have anyone to take me aside and say, “Tell me about Leroy.” But it also became an important part of understanding who Leroy had been to us–and who he still was. We spent our last months wrapping him in love, honoring who he was. An important part of that was possible because in preparing to say “good bye” in a meaningful way I had reminded myself of the things I wanted to tell him while I could still do so.
4. Make private space for mourning. The day after we hosted Leroy’s farewell gathering, The Boy said to me, “It was nice, but there wasn’t really time for us to say “good bye.” And he was right. That gathering was wonderful–it offered people who loved Leroy a time and space to grieve, to comfort each other, and to begin the hard process of moving on. It was good and right that we honor Leroy that way. But because we were hosting it, we were necessarily taken up with things like food, making sure everyone had what they needed, offering comfort where we could. And that was right–but it meant that we needed to make a private time when we could say our own “good bye’s.” And we did. We planned an evening out on the patio, with a fire burning in the fireplace, and a dinner made up of Leroy’s favorite foods. The Boy wrote a letter. I took a copy of the book I had made.We read them, and looked at them, and then we sent them off to Leroy in the smoke of our fire. It was private, and it helped.
5. Don’t be afraid to laugh. Grief is intense. For some of us, laughter helps. When my grandfather died, I found laughter a great way of releasing some of the intense emotions. I won’t tell the whole story here, because it really deserves its own blog post, but to summarize my uncle, who was videotaping the memorial service, had a heart attack and died. And the camera was rolling. It was terrible. And laughter helped, not because it was funny–it wasn’t–but because…well, because it helped me. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Anything that helps us not mask the pain, but experience it, make it a part of ourselves, and then move on is a good thing.
By the same token, treasure the periods of “okayness” that seem to be a part of the grieving process, at least for me. It’s like a roller coaster, and thank goodness it is, because we need those comparatively tranquil periods between the periods of intense grief to give us respite. Enjoy them. Understand that this doesn’t make you a bad person. Feeling okay doesn’t mean you didn’t love the person, and that you’re not grieving. It just means that for right now, you feel okay. Be grateful.
So there it is–all I got about losing someone. As I said at the beginning, grief is intensely personal. Maybe nothing here means anything to you. That’s okay. We each have to find our own way. This was mine.
6. And finally–grief doesn’t have a time clock. It takes as long as it takes. There is no schedule, no set time beyond which grief is inappropriate. Yes, grief evolves over time–I no longer grief my dad and my grandpa in the way I did, but I still have moments. There are a lot of cheerleaders who will advise you to “move on,” to “let it go,” to “get on with your life.” Grief makes people uncomfortable. It reminds us that none of us are immortal. But your experience and mine will not be the same, and you will experience grief in different ways for different people. And that’s okay. It’s more than okay. Feel it until you don’t need to feel it anymore. Talk about it until you realize you want to talk about other things. There is no schedule.