The obituary notice, clothing for the funeral parlor, the casket, the burial site, music for the funeral Mass and the final decision: the headstone. How should it be inscribed? What can be said about a life so precious in so small a space?
These are the decisions and activities that face the bereaved after a death. People call, drop by, send sympathy cards: they seem to hover about like bees to the hive. These are our friends. They wash dishes, change the sheets, bring in baskets of food: they give us cold rags for eyes swollen by tears, They tell the bereaved to eat, to sleep, to shower. They take us to appointments and always call to see how we are now that another day has passed.
The expectation is that with each passing day, we will become “better.” These friends believe that there is a time-frame which should be followed in this grief process and so, they have a notion as to how many days or months it should take to “be better.”
When one is taking too long, the friends are concerned and suggestions are made as to how to get better. Topping this list of bromides is “getting out.” There are directions given to help the bereaved deal with grief. We should take more or fewer pills, go back to the doctor, get another doctor, call at any time, “day or night” they say. They hug, assure us of their love and give the long, soul-searching stare into our eyes with words of comfort such as: “You’re not doing so well, are you?” At this moment, screaming inside one’s head is a rage that says, “Are you serious? How should I be doing? My only child is dead! What do you expect of me?”
These friends carry saccharin potions designed to help. They tell us that some good will come of this death and how much more free time or money one might now have. When the deceased is an elderly father, the knowing look is given which says that because he was old, all of this mourning is contrary to nature. When the deceased is a middle aged brother, euphemisms flower forth which say: at least he was able to….and then comes the list. When, however, the deceased is an only child in the first flower of his manhood, the words are harder to predict. One friend claims to understand exactly what the bereaved is going through (though she never had a child); others concede that they cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to lose a child; that it is a pain which no parent should suffer. Advice is given on the importance of being “strong” and they whisper among themselves about how “strong” they think you are. They whisper this about a person who is dissolving from the inside out.
Most of these well-intended suggestions are ludicrous. The lack of understanding of the depth of grief is hurtful. The physician chides the bereaved for her lack of faith, a friend asks “what stage of grief” one is in and so the bereaved begins to distance herself from these foolish comments. They assault the soul! No true empathy can be felt from people who “just don’t get it”. Thus, the bereaved begins a process of isolation from what had been a support group and a valued circle of friends. This isolation, taken over a period of months and years is both ally and enemy. It is an ally in that it becomes a necessary means of coping and an enemy because, ultimately, isolation for the bereaved is a great danger. Isolation at the workplace, in the neighborhood and from one’s friends can lead to desperation and despair.
The friends display many common characteristics that are readily recognizable and might even be humorous if the behavior were not ultimately so hurtful. Among those traits observed is avoidence. Those who had initially hovered about the bereaved begin to absent themselves. They fear that death is contagious. That tragedy struck her! It could happen to me!
Neighbors don’t know what to say, and so they just don’t notice the bereaved when she is outside. Co-workers pretend that actually, nothing happened because, after all: This is a Workplace! Little by little, the phone and doorbell stop ringing because the friends can no longer endure the prospect of the tears and pain. The deceased brother, father and son are no longer mentioned or called by name.
Avoidance leads to awkwardness. The person who suffers from Awkwardness is a friend who has had little or no contact with the bereaved either since the deaths or for an extended period of time. She will avoid eye contact if she suddenly encounters the bereaved in an unexpected setting. There is no way to explain the absence or lack of any contact and so the bereaved must become invisible! If the encounter is forced, they will chat about banalities. This person is so threatened by the bereaved’s presence that she becomes associated with a plague that is to be avoided at all costs. Since we are in fact a self-protective species, the flight mechanism takes hold and distance is maintained at all costs.
The situation is so awkward that little can be done or said to bridge the gap between these people. At some point, too few words and too much time have passed to ever make things right again. The bereaved is left to feel deserted and disdained. The Avoider and the Awkward actually engender momentary sympathy from the bereaved because we do understand the situation: it has been played out numerous times. We have become familiar with the drill. Since the bereaved is also self-protective, she will flee the scene. She is confused, bereft, left to wonder why, when friendly faces are so desperately needed—they turn away.
Awkward persons are reluctant to use real language. They ask if “things are better now that the dust has settled,” refer to “those family members who died” as though they were speaking of a great uncle’s gout. They avoid, above all, saying that a brother, father or son died or was just buried. When this lapse is pointed out, the friends feel attacked, misunderstood, ill-used. The bereaved is described as being “snippy” and “unpleasant”. Now we have Avoiders made Awkward by “these things that happened” who feel it best to stay away until that “dust has settled.”
The Awkward manifest their discomfort in a variety of styles. There are those who enter the house like a whirlwind, loudly greeting the bereaved as though she had just won a soccer match. They bellow “How are you!” and pray there will be no reply. They invade the house, eating and drinking and think that they have lifted the bereaved’s spirits by this clamorous visit. The strain on the bereaved exerted by the false front or mask required by this visit come at a time when the heart is bleeding and the chest is so constricted that each breath brings pain.
Among these friends is yet another character: The Ambulance Chaser. This person thrives on being on-the-scene and she is validated (temporarily) because she is needed. She takes over, directs, manages, orchestrates, entertains and demands to be the center of attention. She holds court, riveting all to her tales of tragedies endured, wrongs suffered and the crosses that she has had to bear. These people are exhausting, however, once the sounds of the sirens fade and the floral arrangements are thrown away, The Ambulance Chaser disappears. The crowds are no longer on-the-scene to observe how deftly she handles a crisis or how much she has done for the bereaved and so she is off on a quest for yet another crisis to manage. All the while a heavenly choir of angels, Cherubim and Seraphim ring out in her ears. They exclaim: See what she did! Behold how needed she is! Give thanks for her goodness! Hosanna, Hosanna!
The enormity of Death cannot be grasped by the bereaved. Each day Death is a new experience—she must learn of it daily, experience it daily and understand it daily for a very long time. It washes over the bereaved unexpectedly, like being under a waterfall from which there can be no escape or movement. The pain is not figurative; it is overpowering. The numbness initially felt has disappeared and left nerves that are exposed, raw. The images of brother, father and son loom in the bereaved’s mind, canceling out all other stimuli until the cacophony that is her new reality shatters her mind.
Imagine then, how intense this experience is when compounded by multiple deaths within the space of a few months. The friends rally once, twice and yet a third time. At this point, they are overcome by fear of contagion. They want to avoid the bereaved with every fiber of their being. The saccharin potions are still offered but with an impatience which creeps into their voices. “Don’t tell me you’re going to cancel again!” is the rebuff after another agreement to go out has been reneged upon. The bereaved is not going through those “grief phases” quite fast enough. Because it is so very difficult to relate to another’s grief and be affected by their pain, the friends make a very obvious choice: pursue a friendship which is depressing as well as frightening or opt for easier times with friends who are not hurting so obviously.
Unfortunately, the support group dwindles and is now nearly gone after a period of a few years. Grief is not for the faint of heart. Time passes. Awkwardness is now enmeshed in the friends. Avoidance reigns and the circle of friends is little more than a memory.
Grief still holds the bereaved in its grasp and still, she is struck daily by the reality of Death. Now, she grieves in solitude; she feels rebuffed, ignored and deserted by friends. Reaching out from this isolation would be too painful, too frightening. The remaining friends will not bring up the subject of the dead or share a remembrance. Isolation is compounded daily: work place associates will not venture on the subject nor will the friends.
Few options are left and the bereaved finally pays a therapist an hourly rate to listen to the unfolding of her grief. There, in a strange room with a stranger, the bereaved can finally say those things that nearly suppress breath; which cause the chest to constrict so tightly that the heart can barely beat. In addition to the deaths of father, brother and son, she mourns the death of friendships. Death takes an unexpected toll on the bereaved’s life and none of it is explicable. The comfort of isolation is so compelling and its absence so threatening that to reach out from this realm brings overpowering fear.
Though much is written about grief, we Americans understand it very little; we believe that like the Texas Two Step, we can’t do it right if we don’t go through all the right steps on someone else’s beat. We do not dress in black for a prescribed period of time. Black is a fashion statement, not a statement about grief. We do not wear black armbands or rub our bodies in ash and wear sackcloth.
It is assumed that Life should go on as it did before tragedy struck. Our communities are too large and anonymous for others to know of our circumstances and so those we know well and others we don’t know so well, ask about our summer plans, weekend plans, the holidays and of course, they wish us a good day.
Our society has placed such a premium on pat answers and a perky demeanor that we are compelled to answer back in kind. We suppress the urge to spit out our disbelief at these vacuous well-wishers. Don’t they know I can barely breathe? Why does she wish me a Happy Mother’s Day? She knows that my son, my Sunshine, is dead.
We are compelled by our societal mores to smile, say that we’re fine and return the phrase wishing the clerk, the cashier, the co-worker and everyone else a good day! We suppress the need to say what we feel until our hearts and stomachs are turned inside out. The rage is overwhelming: tears sting our eyes; we scream in our sleep; words are choked in our throats and yet ... our hearts dare to beat.