My mom died 7 months ago.
It was a long old haul. Five years, really, but last winter and spring were incredibly hard. I moved churches again to a place I love, but my first 10 months were constantly interrupted by Mom’s sickness. I made 4 emergency flights to PEI (in addition to scheduled trips) for a week to a month each. Not that I minded, or the church minded. As someone in my church said to me, this really only happens once or twice in a lifetime, so everyone understands. I actually got word of Mom’s death during a church council meeting. Talk about grieving in community.
As a person with a public persona (I’m a medium fish in a really small pond) how I grieve has a whole other element to it. I struggle with the pressure to set an example of “good mourning”. But good mourning also means acknowledging my depression and struggles, so that is harder in public.
I haven’t figured out all the perfect ways to grieve in the midst of family, friends, church and online community. Here are a few things that helped me. Maybe they can help you, too. I’d love to hear more from you in the comments.
1. I cultivate my life online because I do not subject my pain to public scrutiny
There is a lot online these days, especially for teenagers, about how we cultivate our online personae. We have super-parents who post all the awesome ways they are winning at parenting. In my circles clergy celebrate the awesome little details of ministry. We clergy have perfected the humble brag. We all post selfies of our best made up selves. We don’t post that gross white pimple or when our eyes are black and bagged with exhaustion.
It’s good to remember that no person’s whole self is online. I admire and appreciate my friends who live with all kinds of hardship and are honest about the tough days. They rant and cry or show pictures of their bloody wounds. It’s hard to see but I am grateful they fill my timeline with some balance. Other friends are very public about their grief, posting memorials, memes, or “I just can’t…” posts.
I couldn’t do that. Of course some days are very, very hard. But on those days I personally didn’t want a bunch of sympathetic messages. I just wanted everyone to leave me alone. If I had posted on those days, it would have been something like this:
I just want to crawl back into bed and sleep for 14 hours. I have not been working hard. I’m just depressed and I want everyone to leave me the *F* alone. Stop being nice. Just bring me food and leave it at my door. I really don’t want to hear from you or see you. Don’t respond to this post. I don’t want your advice.
I have good friends and an amazing spouse who are very good at hearing and responding to that. My hundreds of followers? Not necessarily. So that didn’t go online. I was not being dishonest. I knew how I was feeling. So did my family, close friends and therapist. But I still like to post my beautiful selfies and amazing accomplishments for everyone.
So, a general rule with anyone, not just those who are grieving. Remember that no one is obligated to share their life with you, especially online. Everyone has the right to share what they want with whomever they want and that may not include you. Don’t assume you know how anyone is doing based on their social media. If you want to know, reach out.
And you, my mourning friend, are not a journalist, reporting on your grief. Post whatever you like. Or don’t.
2. Asking for what I need is much easier than waiting for people to figure it out
There are a lot of articles and memes out there about empathy which, I think, put a ton of pressure on people to the point they are paralysed into not reaching out at all to those who are hurting. Empathy is amazing but, you know, sympathy is not that bad, either.
In a world that is advocating for more empathy there is this idea that if we are simply empathetic we will know what the grieving or hurting person will need and then we can give it. That usually ends up in me saying, down the road, “Gosh. I wish I had known. I could have made that easier for you.” Maybe I’m just bad at empathy.
During one of those trips back to PEI when Mom was sick, I had coffee with an old friend. She reached out and we made a date. She was very frank with me. She said, “We want to help, but we don’t know what you need. So, if you need anything, even just a 20 minute coffee, let us know.”
And I realised that this was a beautiful act of empathy. She knew there were a lot of things I needed, but I didn’t want to ask. If I’m being honest, I felt that I shouldn’t have to ask, that if people were really paying attention to me, they would know what I needed.
So, I started asking. I didn’t put out massive calls on social media, but I started being specific with friends and family about what exactly we needed and when. One afternoon I just needed a bed to sleep in before a long drive back to the hospital. Of course, I got dinner and a glass of wine out of the request, too. I asked my cousins to help Mom move into a new apartment. One day I reached out to two friends to say I didn’t even have the energy to order groceries online. So one of them spent 3 hours on public transit to bring me beef stew.
Which leads me to my next point.
3. More people are supportive and empathetic than are not supportive and empathetic
Again, if you believe everything you read on the internet, people are real jerks when it comes to death and dying. They say things like, “I’m sorry your baby died. But you still have time to have another one,” or “Well, he was old so there is nothing to be sorry about,” or “It was God’s will” or “God needed another angel”. I heard some of that. But, actually, I heard and read a lot more really awesome things full of hope and love and prayer.
I wasn’t with Mom the night she died. I had been with her through so many crises except that last one. I wasn’t even in the same province, so it all felt very surreal. When I posted the news, the messages started pouring in. Each message helped me feel her death more viscerally, and, I was surrounded by friends. One friend actually composed a poem and sent it by text.
When I went home to PEI, everybody was sad. Mom was a big fish in a very, very small pond. I couldn’t go anywhere without someone expressing their sadness at Mom’s death. One day I went to the store to buy a loaf of bread and I still hadn’t cashed out an hour later as people stopped me to talk about Mom. It sounds stressful and annoying but, mostly, it was very healing. I heard very few of the dumb things and lots of great memories of Mom, validating my own feelings of loss.
So, I would say, don’t go into mourning on the defensive. Take it from me, being on the defensive takes a lot of energy you don’t have. Some people will be insensitive and make it all about them. Feel free to ignore them or tell them off. But there are lots of others who are genuinely sad for you and will do just about anything you ask of them (see point 2) because, chances are, they have lost someone before. They are waiting to do for you all the things they wish others had done for them.
4. Pay attention to the Grief Circles or Ring Theory
Dr. Susan Silk and her partner, Barry Goldman, wrote a piece in 2013 called How Not to Say the Wrong Thing about how to express grief and comfort our loved ones. The person who is sick or grieving is in the centre of a circle. In the next concentric circle are her immediate family. Concentric circles keep growing with people who are impacted by the illness or grief, depending on their closeness or distance to the person in the centre. When you are in a conversation, consider where you are in the circles of grief. Are you at the centre? Then you get to say or do whatever you want to whomever you want. Seriously (see next point).
This is my circle.
Let me talk about Team Carol. These are Mom’s dearest friends who were there for her and us in so many ways. Their grief is very, very significant. They each had friends and family they could lean on, their own outer circles. I was Mom’s primary caregiver and one way they took care of Mom was to take care of me and Fred. Your location in the circle does not necessarily signify your own grief or your love for the person in the centre.
If you are not in the centre rings, your grief is not insignificant, you just have to think about who you express your grief with. The trick with the circles is “Comfort in, Dump out.” Are you talking with someone who is closer to the inner circle than you? Your job is to comfort. Are you talking to someone on a circle surrounding yours? Then you are free to seek whatever comfort you need.
And if people are not respecting your space in the circle, you can leave them. For now. You can reconnect when you are feeling stronger. Which leads to point 5.
5. You are not obligated to anyone right now
When you are experiencing a significant loss, you don’t owe anyone anything. That’s not to say it is in your best interest to be selfish. It really isn’t. Being there for others in their difficulties can help you find your way out of the dark places of grief. But you don’t have to. You do not have to visit. You do not have to provide. You do not have to enjoy. You can say no. You can back out at the last minute. Surviving grief depends on you taking care of yourself.
In the weeks around Mom’s death, a lot was happening in my community and with a few friends. Normally I would have jumped in to advocate and support. But I just couldn’t do it. I’m sure it would have been appreciated if I had, but frankly there were lots of other people advocating and supporting those folks and no one was saying, “Gosh. Why hasn’t Dawn responded to this? I guess she just doesn’t care.” They probably didn’t even say, “I wish Dawn could support me right now.” What they likely said was, “Dawn has enough going on right now,” or, more likely “*crickets*”. Nothing. Because there were lots of others who could make all that happen while I was grieving and planning and flying back and forth.
6. Take advantage of the privileges of mourning
Finally, as much as you can, surround yourself with people who get all this. There will be those who will try to make this all about them. You may not be able to escape them all the time. But spending time taking care of yourself and being with people who do get you will give you the strength to deal with the insensitive folks.
I am getting through this. You will, too. Whether you need people around you or prefer to be alone, lean on your circles. Grief does not get easier by cutting ourselves off. It is important to experience friendship, beauty, love, even laughter, for our own health.
Once upon a time, there were privileges for those in mourning. It’s why we wore black, so others would know to be gentle. We don’t wear black anymore, so we need to reach out more to our community when we can. Reaching out is always a risk. When we are grieving, being misunderstood is even more painful than usual. Try to remember that almost everyone you reach out to has lost someone they love, and they remember what they needed, and what was painful. They want to do their best for you. Whether you reach out through a phone call, or a facebook post, you will at least find someone who cares about you. And that is a start.