We, my wife and I and thousands of others, are about to lose a friend. His family are about to lose a husband, father, son-in-law and so forth, as it always is. None of us walk alone, not really, and few of us pass unnoticed and unmourned. In his case, many will notice and mourn.
Bill has terminal cancer. It arose suddenly and was misdiagnosed for far too long. Maybe he could have beaten it if things had been different. But there it is. It is what it is. He and the family seem to be dealing with it about as well as can be expected.
We have never met him in person. I’ve spoken to him once on the phone. We know him from his blog, podcasts, and Facebook. His signature is in a book his wife wrote, signed to Shel and me by the whole family (and their dog). We can’t really claim to know him at all, and yet in many respects we feel as if we do. We do know and love his wife and kids, who are all three the kind of people who make you feel as if you’d known them most of your life and just need to catch up a bit. We know them well enough to be absolutely certain that the man who married that woman, who fathered and helped raise those children to young adulthood, was a good man who lived an essentially good life. None of us are perfect.
Grief is a strange thing – totally normal, but much feared, and even more misunderstood. It comes in stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally Acceptance. They are not negotiable. We go through them or we suppress them. If we suppress them they’ll haunt us for the rest of our lives, keeping us from developing a healthy emotional balance, and we may never know the reasons.
Children may grieve loss of a parent, loss of parenting, loss of a normal childhood. Adults may suffer the same things, as well as loss of a loved one in later life, loss of a relationship, even such seemingly mundane things as loss of a job. In each case, we need to work through the stages in order, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but the choice is not ours. It happens as it happens.
Those stages go something like, “Oh, no, it can’t be! It’s something else!” “Dammit, if those doctors had only___, or “If she’d just caught the later plane!” “God, if you’ll save him, I’ll___ (fill in the blanks), or “Don’t take them, take me!” Then come the feelings that things will never be right again: I’ll never, we’ll never, this unhappiness will never go away. And, finally (if we allow ourselves to grieve fully), “It is what it is.”
I would add “Bewilderment” or “Closure” to the above list, because sometimes we don’t know enough to actually grieve. Parents often can’t really grieve missing children, because they are unable to admit that they are truly gone. This is true of all sorts of “missing” relationships. Hope is a good thing, but unrealistic hope based on magical thinking can stall the grieving process for a lifetime.
I know a bit about grief. My father died when I had just turned eight. He’d been chronically ill for years, and when he worsened it wasn’t so much kept a secret from me as that no one explained what was going on or what to expect. Later, when he was near death, no one had the skills to pass it on to me in ways that I could understand. Likewise, when he died, no one explained. Everyone tried to be brave in front of the child. I was praised for being brave, when indeed I had no real idea what was going on, and copied what I was seeing from the adults.
No one showed me how to grieve, or that it was okay to do so.
As a result, I felt abandoned – and I was: emotionally abandoned. I don’t blame my caretakers, because they came from simple backgrounds and no one knew much about how to handle kids’ emotional issues back in 1952 anyway. For 60+ years, however, I simply drew away from seriously ill people: my grandmother, a dear friend, a man who’d been like a father to me – anyone who I had reason to believe might “abandon” me again. I’d leave them before they could leave me. I’m pretty sure that carried forward to other situations besides illnesses. I’m still working on some of that stuff.
My life would probably have been quite different if I’d known how to grieve that first loss.
My point is, don’t stifle your grieving process, nor that of others. Don’t tell them to “keep a stiff upper lip.” Don’t tell them they’ll soon be able to move, or that “it’s time to move on.” Let them process their own feelings in their own time. On average, it takes a couple of years. If seeing them grieve makes you nervous, that’s your problem and you can at least try to keep your mouth shut. “I’m sorry, what can I do?” is all you need to say. You’re not a shrink, and folk magic doesn’t help. People who are hurting don’t want to hear platitudes and other b.s., even if you think it’s good common sense. They just want someone to listen. If you’re not a good listener, don’t put yourself in that position. They don’t need it. Respect their grief and the process.
And most importantly, respect your own.