Dearly Departed Dos & Don’ts
Until they’ve been there, most people are fairly clueless about what to do when someone they know loses a loved one. I can state outright, however, that I’m a pro: I do death well.
See, I was the first of my friends to lose a parent as an adult, and so was charged with forging the path for others. I was 26, mad as hell, and I kept score. I catalogued every hurt, slight and oversight. In fact, here’s something in the author’s own words from that time:
And now here’s the thing about death and other people: They are going to disappoint you. You have death cooties and they are scared of you. Or they will just stay away. Or they will want you to act like everything’s normal. Or they will say the wrong thing. Or they will say nothing at all. They will stare at you like your skin is peeling off like wallpaper. You will grow to distrust everyone you ever knew, and want to start afresh. You go to bars and talk to strangers.
(Yes, I have saved everything I’ve ever written. And no, we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of my youthful vitriol.)
Well, all I can say now is what a difference 24 years makes. In the weeks and months that have slowly stacked up since my mother’s passing last May, I’ve been doing more scorekeeping, but this time I’ve been tallying the positive experiences. Based on these kindnesses, here are some pointers for those of you who remain lost about how to handle that friend in mourning…
“Food = Love”
That’s what the card read that was attached to the wild-rice salad Bob and Christine left on our back porch. And that’s what I felt when I saw my friend Shonna lugging what appeared to be a 25-pound pan of lasagna up my front steps, and when Marguerite dropped off the tub of red beans and rice. I don’t know about you, but all that crying makes me hungry. Bring food.
Or, send a card
I know it may seem tacky and commercial, but cards are nice. Cards can be read at the end of the day when you don’t know what else to do with yourself. Cards from people you only know a little bit (thank you, Connie and Gay; Edite; Astrid; Sue C.; and my dentist, Greg) and from people you knew back when (thank you, Patrick, Shelly and Sally) are little blips of joy on your radar screen of woe. And while bereavement is not a popularity contest, it feels good to see those cards and letters pile up on the coffee table.
Ha, ha. Just kidding. But I do have to confess that as I opened these cards — the arrival of which spanned my fiftieth birthday — I thought, Wouldn’t it be great if a twenty fluttered out?
Many people who don’t know what to say would rather say nothing. But even just acknowledging the loss avoids having to force those awkward, “You know my mom just died,” Tourette-like interjections into the conversation.
Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” With sympathy, it’s closer to 100. You don’t have to do or bring anything. Your presence — especially that of unexpected guests (thank you, Dale, Bonnie, Rita, Dan, Kim P., Steve, Sarah D., Colleen, and others) — is enough. If it seems like too much trouble, think of the two 82-year-old grammar-school chums of my mother’s, who drove to Bath from Gorham and Sanford to attend visiting hours. Or the family friend who, as I understand it, had not been to a funeral since her husband died right before my dad did in the early ‘80s. She got herself there, too. If you think your attendance won’t be noticed, you’re wrong.
Buy me a beer
No, it’s not going to fix anything, but I like free hooch.
Actually, forget the beer. A week at your country home would do much more to restore my spirits.
Remember, the road to perdition…
Sometimes word travels slowly. A card is still welcome weeks and months later. (Thank you, Joan and Becki.) I remember hearing, many months after the fact, about how a woman I knew only slightly and for a very short time had lost her son. I should send a card, I thought … over and over and over again. But I never did. I decided the briefness of our acquaintance and the length of time since the loss justified not sending a card. I knew better.
None of this even begins to touch on how well I’ve been taken care of by my amazing inner circle of friends and family (too many and too dear to thank here), or how the love of a good man can get you through most anything. When you’re young and mad, it’s easy to focus on people’s shortcomings. But when you’re old and sad (and have racked up your own crop of failings), any tiny act of kindness is a gift. And for understanding that — finally, after 50 years — I am grateful.
Elizabeth Peavey wasn’t kidding about the country house. Just leave the key under the mat.