Communicating Through Grief

Over the past few months, I’ve been in the midst of an unexpected life experience.  My father is terminally ill and was recently started on hospice care.  I say unexpected because while we all know the trajectory of life and we all know a. leads to b., death and illness always seem to feel unexpected.

Through this process, I’ve been doing a lot of introspection and examining why I, and others, do and say the things we do and say.  As you might imagine, I’ve also been A LOT more sensitive to some of the things people do and say right now.  I’ve even taken to scouring the internet trying to find a concise article to express how I’m feeling about it.  (There are some great articles, but nothing that captures exactly what I want to say.)

What I really wanted to get across is that while it’s likely that everyone means well, there are some things that people do and say in the midst of painful situations that help, and some that either hurt or don’t help in the way they might be intended to help.

For me, personally, this is what I’ve learned.  Before going further, I do want to say that I know I have definitely done things in both of these categories before.  Probably we all have.  It’s not a list meant to cause guilt or anxiety.  It’s a list meant to show a different perspective.  One that I was far less aware of prior to this experience.

Things I have found to be less helpful:

1.  “Is your dad okay?”

I don’t know what this question means.  Are you asking if he died between the last time we talked and this moment?  Are you asking if he’s had a miraculous recovery?  No.  He isn’t okay.  He’s dying.  For me, this question is one of the worst.  I try hard to take a time out when I hear this and remind myself that the person asking cares.  I’m not always able to do that, and I’m sure I’ve made a snarky remark or ten following this question.

2.  “Are you okay?”

Honestly, I don’t know what this means either.  Am I existing in this moment?  Will I continue to exist into the next moment?  Yes.  Yes, I will.

3.  “Is there anything I can do?”  “Let me know if you need anything.”

Oh, I know.  I sound like an asshole putting this here.  I’m even judging myself a bit as I write this.  But here’s the deal: this question is too vague to be helpful.  What are you offering to help with?  Are you actually offering or is it just another thing you say because that’s what people say?  My suggestion would be to make a more specific offer with a specific timeline.  It’s really difficult to ask for help.  Even offering to do _____ “if you ever need it” is a difficult offer to take someone up on.  Here’s what I admittedly sometimes wish people would ask.  “Do you need some help getting the lawn mowed?  I’m free at _____ time.”  Yes.  Yes, right now I really do need help with that.  My dog also needs to play more fetches than we have time for.  If I start staying overnights at my parents’ house I also need a place for the dog to stay.  Here’s the thing though: I’m not going to ask you to come help.  When you say, “Is there anything I can do?” I’m going to say, “No, but thanks for the offer, I appreciate it.”  I don’t really know what you’re offering, so I don’t know what else to say.

4.  “I hope you’re okay.”

I’m conflicted about listing this here.  It’s a lovely sentiment.  I hope you’re okay too.  In the midst of things, here’s how I really read this:  “I don’t have the time / energy / interest in asking how you are or hearing about things right now, so I’m going to give you a closed statement wishing you well that doesn’t invite you to emotionally vomit on me.”  I get that.  Being emotionally vomited on can be messy and exhausting.

5.  “You never talk to me anymore.” “We never see you anymore.”  “Where have you been?  It’s been ages.”

Perhaps not, and if you open an interaction with me by trying to make me feel guilty, it will probably remain that way.  I’m emotionally drained.  Pick up the phone.  Call me if you want to talk to me.  Invite me out if you want to see me.  Otherwise, accept that right now I’m a bit more isolated and that’s okay.  (Alternately, you can keep trying to guilt me, but you may start to notice I no longer reply.)

6.  “ Have you tried _____?” “You should _____.”

In these cases, the blanks tend to be things someone thinks will either help me or help my father / family.  “You should try _____ medication for him.”  “You should take time for yourself.”  “You should [anything].”  These statements suck.  I hear these things and tend to feel like I need to defend my approach to things.  If you really feel the need to give advice, try something like, “When my family member was sick, I found _____ really helpful.”

Here are the things that I find really helpful:

1.  “Would you like to get together at _____ time to spend some time together?”  “I’m free on _____ day, how about we get some food or just hang out?”  “I would like to see you, I’m free _____.”

With the caveat that I might have to cancel at the last minute, I will almost always accept these invites.  Here is what is so wonderfully different about these invitations.  They are specific.  I am free at _____.  That is so critical for me right now.  I don’t have to try to come up with a time to see someone, initiate the interaction, think of something to do with them, etc.  When you’re emotionally drained, the steps it takes to initiate social interaction can seem overly difficult.  These invitations are even better when they are for a location other than my home.  (It can seem overwhelming to have to clean my house before and after someone visits.)  Even if I can’t make it, these invitations are so incredibly touching to me.  (Yes, I cry every time I get one right now.)

2.  “I’m thinking about you.”

This one is wonderful because sometimes I don’t have the energy to talk about how I am and how he is and what’s going on.  This statement lets me know that someone cares and invites me to talk about it or to not talk about it depending on where I’m at.

3.  “Would you like to talk about what’s going on?”

Maybe I will and maybe I won’t, but I appreciate you asking.

4.  Statements that validate how I feel.  “It can be really difficult to go through this process.”  “When my _____ was _____ I felt really _____.  I know this can be hard.”

How do I feel right now?  Sad, angry, frustrated, out of control, etc.  Maybe it’s the same or it’s different than how you felt when you experienced something similar.  Either way, it’s nice to be validated.  It makes me feel a little less like I’m losing my mind.

5.  “ Would you like to talk to me about things you remember about your dad?”

This is one that is best asked by someone I am close to.  I will cry.  I can pretty much guarantee it.  Maybe don’t ask me in public if you’re uncomfortable with me sobbing openly at brunch.  It can be really difficult to initiate this type of conversation unless I know someone wants to hear about it.  It’s a bit random to just say, “Hello, friend.  I would like to tell you some stories about my dad that are unconnected to anything we are doing or discussing, because I am remembering them right now and I really, really want to share them.”

Here’s the takeaway: 

I love my friends and family and I appreciate any way you want to try to communicate to me that you care.  If you’ve been trying to show me you care in a lot of the ways listed in the first section, I still love you.  I still appreciate your efforts.  Sometimes I might not respond to them in the way you might expect for the reasons listed above.

It’s also okay to not want to talk to me about what’s going on.  It’s okay to not have the time or energy to help or talk about it.  If that’s the case, try to understand that this takes up a huge portion of my life and energy right now.  It may be that in this season, our friendship takes a brief rest.  This is okay.

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