When Grief Meets Kindness
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book in 1969 entitled,"On Death and Dying." It came from her work with terminally ill patients. It is still a widely read book and in it she stages grief. There are five stages most everyone goes through when they lose someone they love or even when they are the one who has been given a terminal diagnosis.
The first stage is denial and isolation. Basically we try to hide from the truth of what has happened or what will happen. We cloak ourselves in a reality that no longer exists and try to live there. The isolation may come from trying to stay in denial or perhaps isolation comes as part of the defense mechanism, the fewer people you let in the fewer people to try and pull you back into reality.
The second stage is anger. Anger at our loved one who has left us alone to be sad and grieving. Anger perhaps at the doctors or nurses who didn't cure the disease. Anger at the other person who caused the accident that has left you in emotional pain. Anger at the unfairness of losing someone you love.
Stage three is bargaining. This is where we try to find a way to put off the inevitable. Perhaps we try to make a pact with God. Or we think, "If only we had tried this." Or" If we had done something sooner." It gives us a cushion. Perhaps helping us ease our way into the reality of our loss.
Stage four is depression. I suppose this seems obvious but depression by itself is not always obvious. For some the depression is quiet and private for others is it a time filled with worry and regret. Regret over what was never done with the person who died or regret for time that has been taken away from others while we cared for the person who was ill. This is a time when a good hug and some good listening can be the best help.
Stage five is acceptance. Truth be told not everyone reaches this stage. If a death is very sudden, perhaps under tragic circumstances it is much harder to find a place of accepting the loss and finding peace.
All of this makes sense. I can say I think I went through each when my mother died. But I wonder can we add a sub-stage? A stage that could fit into denial? I would call it the relief stage. It wouldn't fit for everyone because those who lose someone suddenly would never feel relief. But for those who watch a loved one as they whither before us, losing their fight with cancer or another terminal illness there is a strange feeling of relief when the end finally comes. When you watch someone you love suffer in pain and fade away from the person you have always known there is some relief in letting them go. In knowing they are somewhere more peaceful and hopefully watching out for you from a distance.
In the days that followed my mother's death I felt like this. I felt relief and it was like being encapsulated. I felt as though was swimming under water. I had this feeling of not quite being solid. I can't even say that I felt her loss completely. We had plans to make for her memorial service. I had a two year old, was pregnant and had a job to go to. A week after her death our neighborhood had our annual block party and yes I did go and I did dance and one neighbor remarked how "well" I was doing "considering". I found photos of her that made me happy and framed them.
Relief at some point slid into denial, which is why I would make is a sub-stage. Even though I lived a mile away from my parents and talked to my mother in person or on the phone nearly every day, I managed to pretend she wasn't dead but just away. A form of extended vacation. I am not saying I wasn't sad or didn't cry but I think relief and denial worked well together until Halloween when I told my nearly three year old how excited Nana would be to see him in his costume and his face lit up. He said,"Nana's not gone?" And I realized with a pain that stretched from my head to my stomach, leaving me dizzy and nauseous what I had said. My dad arrived at my house the next day expecting to find me ready to go to work and instead he found me in my pajamas, hair in disarray,eyes red and exhausted. I had hit the wall. Reality had caught up with me and the road ahead looked long and full of fog. French writer Colette said, " It's so curious: one can resist tears and 'behave' very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer... and everything collapses."
It took several months for me to walk through that fog. I explained to one friend that it felt just like that. I could hear but sound was muffled. My senses felt dulled, my vision cloudy. I wasn't happy and I wasn't sad. It was hard to feel. I couldn't see beyond the immediate moment because when I did something vital was missing, my mother.
It wasn't in the days that followed my mother's death that I needed sympathy cards and meals. This is not to say I did not appreciate the kindness of friends who stopped by with a dinner, sent me flowers or cards. One friend even gave me a beautiful journal. But it was when I hit the wall that I needed to be surrounded by all that kindness and I didn't even realize it and if I did I would not have known how to ask for it or what to ask for. I cried when I made dinner, I cried when I drove home from work; passing the mall where we spent many hours together. I cried sometimes for no apparent reason. I was exhausted and it felt as though everyone else had moved on. I felt like I didn't have the right to ask for more sympathy.
It is up to those of us who are here to help those who grieve. It is not always easy and sometimes you may not know what to do but sometimes just showing up answers a prayer. God uses us in this way. When a small voice tells you to make a dinner for someone or send a card, don't ignore it. Don't find a reason to not do it. Realize it is God asking you to answer someone's prayer. In the moments when I have listened and acted I have never had someone tell me they didn't appreciate what I did. And most times the response is," How did you know?" I didn't but I listened.
I learned after my mother died how important it is to listen. To listen to the small voice in your head, listen to your friends when they need you. How grateful I was for a kind word, a hug or just the chance to talk about my mother. I have friends now who never knew my mother but could tell you more about her then perhaps people who knew her because they are so willing to hear my stories, sometimes over and over again. And I am very grateful. Their kindness suffocates my grief.
Don't be afraid to reach out months after someone you love has lost someone they love. They will have gone well beyond any feelings of relief, and their public facade may have slipped completely away. Grief may have stages but it doesn't have a calendar. It is not predictable. It is like an ocean, it rolls and waves. It can be cold and deep. It can pull you down and leave you struggling for air. Kindness is our life jacket. It is our hope and our shore. Grief cannot last long in a sea of kindness.