I've never learned very much about etiquette. I've gotten the basics over the years: elbows off the table, proper placement of silverware, don't sneeze on someone's face, no farting on airplanes or in elevators (both of which you rarely followed), what's appropriate cocktail attire, no white after Labor Day unless you live in the South, don't talk on your mobile at a restaurant, chew with your mouth closed, don't cuss in front of children – I mean, I can get by. Sometimes I can really fake it and appear quite classy. Other times, I can break the rules with the best of them.
As I've involuntarily climbed aboard this journey of mourning, I've noticed how uncomfortable my pain can make others. What is the etiquette for grief? When someone is suffering, does one say anything or not? What is appropriate? What is not?
Previous to your death, I would have no idea how to address a grieving friend or acquaintance. Most likely, I wouldn't have said anything at all. I'd be concerned that I'd say the wrong thing, I'd offend and look bad, I'd make them think about it more, or worse, make them cry! Everyone's situation is unique and every person deals with pain in a
different way. But I've thought of some tools that I think may help others.
As a disclaimer, these are only my opinions. While my aunt went to Miss Porter's School, that's about the extent of etiquette training in my extended-family. I've done no research, this is simply advice from me.
Saying nothing is the wrong thing. Get me alone, or in a small group, and say something.
For me, two things are getting me through this process right now: love and faith. Because I am a preschooler in faith but have a PhD in love, love is the big one. I have lost my lover. The man who loved me most, supported me fully, is my best friend, and my biggest advocate is no longer here to make me feel whole – what I need, first and foremost, is love. One easy way to show love, or even give it because it feels like the right thing to do, is to support someone. Support doesn't happen through the silent treatment.
It Doesn't Matter What
I'm not judging what words people are saying to me and they shouldn't either. I mean, they can, but it's a waste of energy. Just saying something and being honest is what's most important. Most likely there will be someone who said something more eloquent and much less eloquent too. But it doesn't really matter. Every word of support is hitting from a different angle and every breath of love is contributing to re-inflating my heart.
The easiest thing someone could say (instead of nothing) is to look me in the eye, and say "I'm so sorry for your loss." If there's more they need to say, I am open to it. But don't pretend like it didn't happen.
I Won't Be Offended
My grief process is not about anyone but me. That's not to sound
selfish, but really, it is selfish. It's not self-righteous/selfish it's
self-preservation/selfish. Right now, so I don't drive off a cliff or
sink into a pit of depression I'll never get out of, my main focus is on myself. Then next up
is family and faith: staying connected and building hope. Beyond that, I
really have no energy left.
My grief is not about the person on the other end
of the conversation. It's not about the last time we spoke, or how close
we are, or how much they knew you. Though I have no energy to judge
what others are saying, I know there's an emptiness when someone
who knows you've died, says nothing at all. Grief isn't eloquent. No matter
what is said, inarticulate or not, as long as it's an attempt at support, I will not be
offended. I'm not offended by people who are silent either, I simply wish they weren't.
I'm Already Thinking About It
When people avoid saying something to me out of fear of broaching the subject, I think it's important to note that the pain NEVER goes away. Your death is always on my mind. It will be for a very long time. I've heard it's like carrying around a boulder in your pocket, then eventually a stone, then a small rock, and someday a grain of sand. But it will always be there. My love for you is vast and unbroken. I will always have you in my mind, even if I'm thinking about other things too. So I would recommend to others: don't avoid addressing grief for fear of reminding me about it, I haven't forgotten.
I Might Cry
People shouldn't be concerned with making me cry. I will cry anyway. And that is OK.
I have learned how to cry without shame in every public place possible. Last week, your mother and I went to run errands. We went to Churchills, Kazmaier's, Home Depot, Bass Pro Shops, and PakMail – and we cried in every store. We cried in parking lots. We cried in the car. And that's OK. We are in so much pain. Last week in Chicago, I walked home to Berk's from a yoga class and I sobbed for six blocks straight: tears, sounds, snot, kleenex, nose-blowing, gasping, the whole ordeal. And I didn't hide it. Because I don't have the energy to and because I don't need to. To be honest, it's healthy for people to see that it's not all unicorns, roses, and rainbows. Just because I'm devastated, doesn't mean I should hide it, or stop it, or plug it up with a pill. Where there is joy, there is sorrow.
I'm Not Doing Well
If someone asks me how I'm doing, I will not say "good". Don't get caught off guard. We're so programmed to say "good" or "fine" or "well, thank you". I'm not doing well. And truthfully, I shouldn't be! If I was doing "well", that would be pretty fucked up. I'm hanging in there. I'm putting one foot in front of the other. I'm alive. I'm here.
Don't Expect a Response
So many people have reached out to me on so many forums. I want to respond to each person accordingly and with the same amount of love that they have given to me, but I simply can't. I'm trying my best. It will take a long time to move through this process. I'm overwhelmed with the support and I'm so grateful. I don't know how I would have made it this far without all of the love I've received. I suck at thank-you notes even when everything's peachy. So in this case, I hope no one is offended, but that they don't expect a response. I got their flowers, I received their message, I saw they called, I read their letter, I listened to their song, I received the cookies/fruitcake/soup, I love the memento, I am grateful for the ticket, I heard their prayers – I thank them.
Don't Compare the Death of a Human to the Loss of a Pet
I'm not going to elaborate on this one but it's happened many times already. Just take it from me, it's not the same pain.