The Gift of Authenticity
There are so many lists.
What TO say, what NOT to say.
If we focus on the lists, I swear we will all be too self-conscious to ever say or do anything.
Like so many people with a shared experience, grievers often mention the ways in which friends and family inadvertently pile hurt upon hurt by saying the exact wrong thing.
I want to be honest with you. I know I am one of them. I know that even as recently as a few weeks ago, I word vomited all over a dear friend who had recently lost her mother. I can tell you with one hundred percent certainty I was saying all the wrong things in all the wrong ways. I could see it on her face. I wanted to listen because I’m generally a great listener, but I couldn’t stop TALKING. Talking about me, my mother, my experience and my pain.
LITERALLY everything I did is on EVERY list of WHAT NOT TO DO.
I felt terrible.
I sent an apology text which she graciously accepted, and I sent myself to my metaphorical room to think about my behavior.
And here’s what I know is true.
I’m am not in a reliable place to show up for someone else grieving the unexpected death of their mother.
Listen, I’m not being hard on myself. I’m just being honest. If I don’t want to cause hurt or be hurt myself, I need to behave with the integrity of truth. I can’t expect myself always know the right thing to do but once I do, I gotta do it.
Which isn’t on those lists.
The lists are beautifully well-meaning, and if we use them as jumping-off points, rather than a menu, I think they give us a hopeful place to start.
But I want to offer something even more simple.
When someone you love is going through a loss — just do what is true for you.
Are you a good listener who has listened to this person about tough/joyous things before? Then go listen…
Are you a cook, who loves to organize a sign-up genius of food delivery? Check food is welcome and get going.
Are you a yogi, and candle maker, a cleric, a florist, an editor? Be creative. Offer what you know.
I’d love to pick you up for a yoga class, I dropped a Eucalyptus candle on your doorstep, I lit a candle in the sanctuary today, these flowers or this article made me think of you.
Notice that none of these things actually makes anything any better.
They solve exactly nothing.
They are tiny efforts of love and caring akin to the cups of water we hand to our friends on mile three, mile 11, mile 25 of their marathon.
And listen if your griever is functioning well enough to be able to TELL you what to do, then, by all means, do THAT. God love the broken-hearted friend who calls you and says she’s run out of diapers and could you run to the store, right quick?
A few years ago (okay maybe more than a few now), my friend Andrea ran an actual marathon and sent this message to us non-marathoners: “there will be plenty of water along the race route. If you want to bring me anything, bring gummy bears.”
Hand to God
You smug runners out there are nodding your heads, saying “yep, gummy bears, that’s right.” Well, I went to CVS and bought a giant bag of gummy bears convinced it was some odd race tradition and we were going to throw them like rice or confetti at the end of the race.
She ate them. Because she was running TWENTY-SIX POINT TWO MILES and she needed some sugar to stay alive damnit. (DUH).
Equally as important as knowing the gifts you have to offer is knowing if you currently have it to give. I learned the hard way that just because I am generally a good listener doesn’t mean I always am or should.
A friend who lost her mom to cancer called and said, “I need to love you at a distance. I’m still too raw, but there isn’t a day that I’m not thinking of you.”
The truth is the definition of friendship and support isn’t always being in the thick of it. More often than not, its a colleague, a person I like but don’t know that well on my street, the guy from my husband’s soccer team that I’m struggling to support. Just offer what you have and is true. If its a card, its a card. No harm done.
In fact, there is probably more harm done in asking the goalie who just lost his wife if he wants to get a drink when you’ve never gone for a drink before. No one wants to feel like a tragedy has suddenly made them more interesting.
Want a few specific concrete examples of things that felt good? Like Julie Andrews, I can tell you a few my favorite things:
When my dad died, one of my dearest friends, Sarah, sent me the sneakers pictured here. The note said something like, “I know there is nothing I can do, but these shoes are awesome and you should have awesome shoes.” Sarah has always been excellent at shoes.
Sarah’s own dad had died years earlier and I remember sending flowers with a card that said, “I can’t think of anything else so here are these dumb flowers. I love you.” Sarah said they made her laugh at the time.
I hate to cook. My extraordinary chef friend, Laurie (and my friend Suri who was incredibly unwell herself), organized a food delivery rota that lasted over a month. Some people have been overwhelmed by food, but for me, it was a lifeline. People who couldn’t cook sent gift certificates. We used every last one.
My friends and colleagues, Maribeth and Stacy, gracefully took over communication with clients.
My friend and colleague, Susan, gave me the name of a movie to watch on Netflix while she found me therapeutic support after I told her I hadn’t left the house in twenty-one days. She didn’t judge get frustrated with me when I said I didn’t think I could manage what she offered. She listened and made it more possible.
A friend who dropped off a casserole he’d made said he left the wine at home because he knew alcohol was a depressant and could make you feel worse. What he didn’t give was as thoughtful as what he did.
Several friends took my kids and made sure they had fun. Extra fun. It didn’t make anything actually better, but for a few minutes, I felt less guilty I didn’t have the energy to mom much.
My friend and neighbor, Diana, sent a masseuse to my house. She’d even pre-tipped him.
A friend asked me if I wanted to have lunch every other day by text.
Another friend texted, “Thinking of you” every three days.
Another friend texted, “How is Today?” a lot of todays.
And by far, by far my favorite thing:
The stories. I read them, I re-read them. One friend wrote, “I remember what a great speaking voice your dad had.” He did. My dad had the greatest speaking voice. My friend probably only met him once, but he offered what was true.
If you have been a griever, think about what you liked and what you are good at. If you have never grieved and don’t have experience to call on, think about what you have to offer. What are your gifts? And if you aren’t sure, ask another friend or relative what they love that you do.
And if you need more inspiration, the website connected to the “There Is No Good Card for This” By Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell, www.helpeachotherout.com, has a section called “Empathy Basics” with scrolling pictures of handwritten examples from actual people describing what did and didn’t feel good.
Love your grievers with what you have. You can do it. If you screw up, apologize and keep trying. Grief doesn’t need perfection, it doesn’t need to be fixed. It needs to be experienced and surrounded by love.
Your love is good enough. It always was and it always will be.