There are many things already widely known and accepted about grief:
- Most humans are terrified of it;
- Someone experiencing acute grief is likely to become estranged from a huge percentage of their previous support network because of point 1;
- Humans love a cliché.
Grief brings into technicolour this terrifying truth – death happens and you can’t control it. In response clichés pour forth from their terrified mouths, generally without recognition of the person grieving’s context, belief system, stage of processing or remaining support system. I can stand back and understand why when I put my social worker hat on, but that hat is too small for me now, and so much of the time clichés and platitudes annoy the crap out of me.
I don’t believe in God. I did have a vague spirituality before I lost my husband, but as time passes and the echo of him fades, so does this sense of a greater reason. I have endured the ‘He is with God now’, ‘He is always with you’, ‘He will give you strength’, ‘You will be together again’, and my favourite ‘I have spoken to a psychic and it will give you relief to know he is okay’. I understand that others are religious or spiritual but throwing these gems at someone who is not merely highlights that you are trying to comfort yourself, not the person most affected by the loss.
Here’s the thing about how these statements land in the world of the atheist – they bring no comfort. In fact, they generally make me angry. How is he giving me strength? I was the strongest version of myself with him as my partner. He was my cheerleader, and my comfort. What would be really helpful is if he could actually came back and I didn’t have to be super woman all the bloody time. I am so tired of the expectation of strength from me. If it is alright by you I think I will become a useless mess for a while.
I hear ‘you will be together again’ and my logical brain kicks in and says well no, we won’t. Practicality wise it would be difficult for our bodies to be in the same place, because he was buried and I want to be cremated and scattered. It was something we could never agree on. Cremation creeped him out. Burial creeps me out. And also I am really not okay if he is around us somewhere and feeling okay. Because the man I loved would not be okay seeing his family suffer as we are. He would be angry. He would be distressed. So to tell me he is okay makes me mad at him and I don’t even believe this shit. Grief really messes with your emotional responses.
The other part that people in my world have struggled with is the fact that life has not gotten easier for me. In the beginning there was madness and people everywhere trying to be useful. But I was in shock and turned most away. It is a lesser known fact that for the widows and widowers left behind it is usually only months down the track that the reality of the loss really kicks in. This was certainly true for me.
In the first 5 months I tried returning to work. Managed a full 2 months of been physically present but identifiably useless to my team before throwing in the towel. I was going out more. Even tried a couple of times at night successfully. I joined a gym and for 4 whole weeks I went. I was still doing my pre-widow statues weekly me-time activity. And then 5 months happened and something shifted. I can’t pin point the exact moment but suddenly going to the gym became scary. And it was suddenly. I became nervous talking to people. I realised my differences and the significance of them in general conversation. I got very tired. As if the last 5 months had been storing exhaustion to release in one nasty go. Just as everyone else got into their groove again, I completely lost mine. I am now scared to go out at night, and uncomfortable in public places that are not familiar and that I identify as safe.
Very few people are aware of this. In fact, in my main friend group, only 2 people are actually okay with me talking about my husband and my new reality. Outside of them I have 2 long term friends who have been constant emotional support. Bless them for that. In contrast another of my friends actually organised her birthday party on the same street that my husband died, walking distance from the spot. I don’t know if I will ever truly get over that hurt. My own siblings don’t ask after me, don’t mention his name, and know nothing of the legal proceedings because they have honestly never asked. And I don’t tell them because I have come to realise there is something worse than not asking for help. It’s asking for help and having the request ignored.
I know I am boring to many now. Funnily enough I have the kind of story that makes people sit up and take notice because it is ‘interesting’, but in reality I struggle to know myself anymore and my grief and trauma process consumes everything I touch. I get bored of me. I lost the old me at some point and I miss her terribly.
So here’s the advice of this rambling post:
- If you have someone close to you dealing with the death of their partner try to stay present. Before you see them take time to check in on your feelings. It is okay to acknowledge to the person that you are scared. Honestly if you are scared and still show up, you are already the best kind of friend.
- Remember that you can’t fix grief and that is okay. Grief is a process that lasts a lifetime. Let it be okay to not know what to say, and to state that. The person you are comforting barely knows what they are thinking and feeling so they are likely to be very understanding.
- Your presence is the best present (yeah, I just said that)
- Before you throw out your own coping strategy, check in on what they are thinking and feeling about their loved ones passing. What is their belief system, what thoughts are comforting them – let that be the focus. Put your beliefs on the backburner while in the support person zone.
- Assist them with practical things without waiting for permission. As a widowed mum of two I am exhausted with running the day to day alone. I love help. I love help that doesn’t ask to be thanked or acknowledged (but I will be thankful and appreciative regardless). I love help that I don’t have to ask for. I’m an independent human – asking for help is excruciating for me.
- Stay away from clichés and platitudes, unless you are making fun of them (that one is more me specific – refer to the above point).
- If someone tells you they are struggling view it as a call to arms. If you are not comfortable find someone who is. Don’t just leave it to protect yourself. You are never more alone than you are following the loss of your partner. Don’t add to their isolation to protect yourself from difficult feelings. One day you may well understand why it matters so much.