When I invited Martha to the gathering at my house, she accepted the invitation cheerfully. Martha was new to the area and so I thought this small potluck I was hosting would be a chance for her to get to know other women in our town. Martha stuck it out till the end, softly responding to each person's questions about where she had moved from and the details involving her current job. It was not until the last guest left that night that she was able to utter her fears, "Oh, Alice, maybe I shouldn't have come." Then she fell apart in tears.
Martha's son had died in a car accident in Tennessee a year ago. She had tried to hold it together during the whole evening, blocking her tears, until at last she had to let go. A private person, she hadn't wanted to tell the others gathered about her son.
As she sat at my kitchen table with the tissues I supplied for her, Martha shared about her son Tony and her love for him. She needed to go over the circumstances which led to his accident that snowy night on a mountain road.
I well remembered how much my husband and I had needed to go over every detail at the one-year anniversary of our son Daniel's death. We had to relive it all in order to get beyond the truth that we could not have prevented his death; we had not been in control.
To complicate matters, before coming to my house, Martha had just gotten off the phone with her sister. Her sister was excited over her upcoming marriage to John. Martha couldn't muster up an ounce of happiness for her sister's special day for the thought that her Tony wouldn't be at the wedding was all consuming.
Then when her sister laughed and said, "If John's dad wears that horrible toupee of his, I think I'll die!" Martha felt her heart ache.
Martha was having a hard time dealing with what all of the bereaved must deal with -- how a society can carry on as though we should be "fine" about the death of our loved one, especially after a year's time and how we can keep on in a society which denies our grief and even pokes fun at death.
We do not live in a sensitive society, especially when it comes to understanding death and grief. Perhaps the use of certain phrases that have the word "death" in them, but don't mean physically dying, proves that we are not "death sensitive." Daniel's oncologist answered my question of "Why do we make fun of death?" with, "We often make fun of what we are afraid of."
I think of the phrases that have nothing to do with real death and yet are part of our colloquial conversation:
A dead ringer
Dead in my tracks
Scared to death
Dying to see
To die for
She looked like death warmed over
It was like I died and went to heaven
We aren't really speaking of death when we throw out these phrases. The girl who wore the t-shirt to the museum that said she was "brain dead" during school hours didn't really mean she was either. Yet, it offended me and anyone else who has had a loved one who was medically brain dead. She thought it was cute. I wanted to leave the museum and cry.
Do others get it? Do they care? Some days their words may help; other times, their words sting. They may be well meaning, but they are at a loss as to what to say. Some say nothing and some say the wrong thing. And there are days when the arms of a church or family member may encircle you and make you feel included and loved. There are other times when you feel isolated from your family and friends.
It was stated to me many times that I should tell others how to treat me. I needed to give them wisdom in knowing how to reach out and help me. In the early months of grief, this can be one of the strangest things to have to do. It is like having a broken leg and telling the doctor how to fix it. Shouldn't he know? Likewise, we are the hurting ones having just buried a loved one, shouldn't the rest of society know how to help us? Why do we, when we are already in agony have to show people how to treat us?
If we don't, they will never get it. If we don't let them know that we need permission to grieve, they will continue on in their lack of understanding. If they say, "Well, he's in a better place," and you let it go, they will not know how that statement tears at your heart. But if you can say without too much venom in your voice, "But he's my son and I want him here just like you want your son with you!" then you have done a great service to that person.
I wish that we could all be as truthful and articulate as my friend Peg from Wisconsin. She says, even now, nine years since Ross, her 4-year-old's death from cancer, "I miss what he would have brought to the rest of my life."
For the truth is, death is all around us. We are born to death. From the beginning of time humans have had to deal with their own mortality. But instead of accepting this, we joke, tease and try to avoid death. We use the phrase that the only two certainties of life are death and taxes and yet, we pretend death won't get us.
To speak about death has been called the greatest taboo. Yet, really, even more of a taboo is to admit that grieving over the death of a loved one is real and important.
We want to shove grief out the door. People don't want you to make them feel uncomfortable or sad when you cry. They want to see you smile and be like you used to be before the death of your wife or sister.
When asked by a coworker how she was doing one mother, who had just lost her son said, "I'm not doing as well as I was three months ago."
"Three months ago?" asked the coworker, puzzled by this answer.
"Yes, that was before my son died."
There is nothing wrong with saying, "Not so good today" when asked how you are doing. Sure everyone wants to hear that you are "fine," but if you're not, why lie?
However, we all know the setbacks to telling the truth. We struggle because, while at times we want to let others know how we really are doing (not well today, thank you), we want to be careful that we don't get an earful of unwanted cliches or platitudes that wrench our stomachs and torment our minds.
There are other platitudes people say in order for them to have something to say or perhaps in hopes that these will make them feel better about your devastation.
"Just trust God."
"God needed another flower for his garden."
"Life isn't fair, you know."
"You'll grow stronger and better because of this."
"God never makes a mistake."
Whether these are true or not, the bottom line is that they don't help we who are grieving.
In the words of Joe Bayly: "I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God's dealings, of why it happened, of why my loved one had died, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly. He said things I knew were true. I was unmoved, except to wish he'd go away. He finally did.
Another came and sat beside me. He didn't talk. He didn't ask me leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour and more, listening when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left. I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go."
People want us to "get over it" and to "move on with our lives." These do not know the first thing about grief. Grief is not an illness or an act of stubbornness or a desire to be difficult. Grieving the loss of a loved one is a deep complicated inexplicable truth.
Over the next months I tried to help my friend Martha learn the ropes we bereaved parents all must learn -- to gently teach and guide others to understand the heart of a griever.
Alice J. Wisler, author of the memorial cookbook DOWN THE CEREAL AISLE, writes and speaks on self-esteem in grief, writing through pain, and the value of remembering loved ones who have died. Visit her website Writing the Heartache -- http://www.geocities.com/griefhope/index.html