Most people want very much to console the grieving and yet don’t have a clue how to do it. What can you possibly do or say that will ease someone’s devastating loss? Should you even try and risk saying the wrong thing and possibly offending? Is it better to just assume that lots of others are rallying round and therefore your inadequate attempts at comfort would not be missed? I asked myself all those questions before I lost Tom. Now I know better. Something is always better than nothing. Grief and loss are lonely and any attempt by someone to reach out is appreciated.
I took great comfort in each card I received. I got more than I expected and now understand those pre-printed “the family of so-and-so gratefully acknowledges your expression of sympathy” cards that had always seemed a little lame to me. All those who contributed to the scholarship fund we established at Tom’s alma mater received an immediate acknowledgement and note of thanks, but many of them I did not know personally and my notes were the handwritten equivalent of a form letter. The cards with handwritten notes that truly touched me were saved in a pile to be answered later. Many of these shared stories of their own losses and recovery. They gave me hope that there actually would be life after the pain. Ten months later they still sit in the same pile. I have decided Christmas cards will be the perfect opportunity to finally send notes of thanks and gratitude for the time each person took to reach out to me in a personal and meaningful way.
I took all the prettiest cards and cut them up into a collage that hangs on my bedroom door. In with the beautiful floral prints and country scenes were short notes from my great nephew (age 6) saying how much he loved Tom, a young piano student of mine expressing his condolences in an email he typed himself and my best friend’s message saying that whatever I needed she would do.
Most people have long ago figured out what not to say in a sympathy card:
“He’s in a better place now.” (Really? Then can I go too?)
“It was God’s will” (Uh-huh and that’s why I have unfriended Him.)
“You’re still young. You’ll meet someone else.” (To paraphrase Paul Newman speaking of his marital fidelity—Why would I ever eat hamburger when I’ve had roast beef?)
Figuring out what TO say is harder. My vote goes to actions rather than words. My friend Elissa started bringing delicious meals about 10 seconds after Tom was diagnosed and never stopped. Two piano dads made sure my driveway was always shoveled. An incredible team of neighbors spent days rebuilding my beloved screened porch that Tom had been too sick to finish. Another group of friends paid to have my house cleaned. My daughter’s sainted Social Studies teacher delivered pints of Ben and Jerry’s to our door. My babysitting co-op friends of yore brought food and snacks for a month after Tom died. My friend Sharon bought me a plane ticket to the Jersey shore for a summer girls’ get away. An amazing seamstress friend took Tom’s T-shirts and made me an exquisite quilt. My book club made a beautiful container and filled it with affirmations—positive, inspiring quotes I could pull out and read on dark days. They also brought me a huge basket of books—some grief related but most just good reads we had selected for future meetings. I kept these books teed up in a stack by my bed. The next one was warming up as I read the final pages of the current one. They were my solace, my activity and my drug and they helped to heal me.
Funeral expenses and medical bills were a genuine burden. (Do you really have to pay when the outcome is so faulty? “Sorry. Your job was to keep him alive. He died. You’re fired and you don’t get paid!”) My brother just started sending me his monthly Social Security checks out of the blue because he didn’t really need them. My nephew and his wife decided to fund my daughter’s trip to her beloved summer camp. Nearly half my piano families paid for lessons I didn’t teach. My sister served as travel agent and companion extraordinaire on two wonderful trips. She somehow knew that it is almost impossible to believe your life is over when staring into a blue ocean with a pina colada in your hand.
Showing up is another great idea. People filled the church at the funeral. Singers I didn’t even know came to be in the pick-up choir. Friends who live very far away dropped everything and came with their spouses to be at my side. The church ladies organized a beautiful luncheon. My neighbors sent food. My anxiety prone daughter who has not been to a family event in years, including her beloved grandmother’s funeral, put on a brave face and stayed for the entire service, luncheon and after party at the house. She did it for me and I will always remember.
So if you aren’t sure what to say—just say something. If you aren’t sure what to do—just do something. Show up at the funeral or visitation. Send a card. Make a meal. Bake brownies. Offer to drive kids to school or take them to activities. Rake leaves. Clean gutters. Shovel a walk. Rebuild a falling down porch. Arrange for a get-away to a beautiful place. Pay for a house cleaning. These acts are not only kind, they are useful. They help the grieving person feel less overwhelmed by the burden of daily life in a world that is now so much darker.
There is no perfect expression of condolence. All that is really required is a heartfelt desire to reach out and connect and in so doing remove pain—even if just an ounce of a two ton burden. We are none of us perfect people—in life or in death. But we are fellow journeyers and by being present in each other’s lives—especially in times of sorrow—we can help to light the way.