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When I invited Martha to the gathering at my house, she accepted the invitation
cheerfully. Martha was new to the area and so I thought this small potluck
I was hosting would be a chance for her to get to know other women in our
town. Martha stuck it out till the end, softly responding to each person's
questions about where she had moved from and the details involving her current
job. It was not until the last guest left that night that she was able to
utter her fears, "Oh, Alice, maybe I shouldn't have come." Then she fell
apart in tears.
Martha's son had died in a car accident in Tennessee a year ago. She had
tried to hold it together during the whole evening, blocking her tears, until
at last she had to let go. A private person, she hadn't wanted to tell the
others gathered about her son.
As she sat at my kitchen table with the tissues I supplied for her, Martha
shared about her son Tony and her love for him. She needed to go over the
circumstances which led to his accident that snowy night on a mountain road.
I well remembered how much my husband and I had needed to go over every detail
at the one-year anniversary of our son Daniel's death. We had to relive it
all in order to get beyond the truth that we could not have prevented his
death; we had not been in control.
To complicate matters, before coming to my house, Martha had just gotten
off the phone with her sister. Her sister was excited over her upcoming marriage
to John. Martha couldn't muster up an ounce of happiness for her sisters
special day for the thought that her Tony wouldn't be at the wedding was
Then when her sister laughed and said, "If Johns dad wears that horrible
toupee of his, I think I'll die!" Martha felt her heart ache.
Martha was having a hard time dealing with what all of the bereaved must
deal with -- how a society can carry on as though we should be "fine" about
the death of our loved one, especially after a years time and how we
can keep on in a society which denies our grief and even pokes fun at death.
We do not live in a sensitive society, especially when it comes to understanding
death and grief. Perhaps the use of certain phrases that have the word "death"
in them, but don't mean physically dying, proves that we are not "death
sensitive." Daniel's oncologist answered my question of "Why do we make fun
of death?" with, "We often make fun of what we are afraid of."
I think of the phrases that have nothing to do with real death and yet are
part of our colloquial conversation:
Drop-dead gorgeous A dead ringer Deadline Dead in my tracks Almost died Scared
to death Dying to see Died laughing To die for She looked like death warmed
over It was like I died and went to heaven
We aren't really speaking of death when we throw out these phrases. The girl
who wore the t-shirt to the museum that said she was "brain dead" during
school hours didn't really mean she was either. Yet, it offended me and anyone
else who has had a loved one who was medically brain dead. She thought it
was cute. I wanted to leave the museum and cry.
Do others get it? Do they care? Some days their words may help; other times,
their words sting. They may be well meaning, but they are at a loss as to
what to say. Some say nothing and some say the wrong thing. And there are
days when the arms of a church or family member may encircle you and make
you feel included and loved. There are other times when you feel isolated
from your family and friends.
It was stated to me many times that I should tell others how to treat me.
I needed to give them wisdom in knowing how to reach out and help me. In
the early months of grief, this can be one of the strangest things to have
to do. It is like having a broken leg and telling the doctor how to fix it.
Shouldn't he know? Likewise, we are the hurting ones having just buried a
loved one, shouldn't the rest of society know how to help us? Why do we,
when we are already in agony have to show people how to treat us?
If we don't, they will never get it. If we don't let them know that we need
permission to grieve, they will continue on in their lack of understanding.
If they say, "Well, hes in a better place," and you let it go, they
will not know how that statement tears at your heart. But if you can say
without too much venom in your voice, "But hes my son and I want him
here just like you want your son with you!" then you have done a great service
to that person.
I wish that we could all be as truthful and articulate as my friend Peg from
Wisconsin. She says, even now, nine years since Ross, her 4-year-old's death
from cancer, "I miss what he would have brought to the rest of my life."
For the truth is, death is all around us. We are born to death. From the
beginning of time humans have had to deal with their own mortality. But instead
of accepting this, we joke, tease and try to avoid death. We use the phrase
that the only two certainties of life are death and taxes and yet, we pretend
death won't get us.
To speak about death has been called the greatest taboo. Yet, really, even
more of a taboo is to admit that grieving over the death of a loved one is
real and important.
We want to shove grief out the door. People don't want you to make them feel
uncomfortable or sad when you cry. They want to see you smile and be like
you used to be before the death of your wife or sister.
When asked by a coworker how she was doing one mother, who had just lost
her son said, "I'm not doing as well as I was three months ago."
"Three months ago?" asked the coworker, puzzled by this answer.
"Yes, that was before my son died."
There is nothing wrong with saying, "Not so good today" when asked how you
are doing. Sure everyone wants to hear that you are "fine," but if youre
not, why lie?
However, we all know the setbacks to telling the truth. We struggle because,
while at times we want to let others know how we really are doing (not well
today, thank you), we want to be careful that we don't get an earful of unwanted
cliches or platitudes that wrench our stomachs and torment our minds.
There are other platitudes people say in order for them to have something
to say or perhaps in hopes that these will make them feel better about your
"Just trust God." "God needed another flower for his garden." "Life isn't
fair, you know." "You'll grow stronger and better because of this." "God
never makes a mistake."
Whether these are true or not, the bottom line is that they don't help we
who are grieving.
In the words of Joe Bayly: "I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and
talked to me of Gods dealings, of why it happened, of why my loved
one had died, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly. He said things
I knew were true. I was unmoved, except to wish he'd go away. He finally
Another came and sat beside me. He didn't talk. He didn't ask me leading
questions. He just sat beside me for an hour and more, listening when I said
something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left. I was moved. I was comforted.
I hated to see him go."
People want us to "get over it" and to "move on with our lives." These do
not know the first thing about grief. Grief is not an illness or an act of
stubbornness or a desire to be difficult. Grieving the loss of a loved one
is a deep complicated inexplicable truth.
Over the next months I tried to help my friend Martha learn the ropes we
bereaved parents all must learn -- to gently teach and guide others to understand
the heart of a griever.
Alice J. Wisler, author of the memorial cookbook DOWN THE CEREAL AISLE, writes
and speaks on self-esteem in grief, writing through pain, and the value of
remembering loved ones who have died. Visit her website Writing the Heartache
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