Friday, December 2, 2011

Now what?

A few years ago, we had a house fire. We all got out okay, even the animals (except for the fish). We had good insurance that stepped in to help right away. We had caring friends, who offered help of various kinds.

And we spent the next year or so reassuring people that no, we aren't kidding that we had a fire, yes, we're okay, yes, it was just stuff, yes, people are generous. I found it fascinating how much WE had to convince other people that we were fine.

I have a friend who is fighting breast cancer. She is not the only person I know who has fought this battle. They have been different ages, with different lifestyles, in different situations, but all of them reached a point where they were tired of people treating them like they're "sick," and just like us with the fire, a little tired of being the one doing most of the reassurance, even while appreciating the care and concern.

For some reason, this year has been a tough one as far as losing friends. I've had three die within the last six months. In all of those cases, the survivors are at a place where they would like to have interactions with people that go beyond "How are you doing? Are you okay? I'm so sad..."  It's not that those things are bad, but they don't always help.

I was married for a long time, having been with that person for even longer. When he left, to sum up a long, complicated story in as few words as possible, it sucked. I've known other people who also had a relationship end, for whatever reason, and one of the things I've noticed is that the end of a relationship affects MANY more people than just those two who split up. Each relationship is connected to a lot of other relationships, and sometimes, those get lost as well, through no fault of their own. It is well known and common, for example, for the friends of a divorced couple to "take sides" whether they mean to or not. Rarely will a friend stay friends with both people, so any split means the loss of friends, as well as the loss of a partner.

I think what all four of these situations share is that this culture doesn't have particularly good ways to deal with loss of various kinds. People are left to muddle through on their own, without the support they have been used to, and/or they end up being the ones offering support and reassurance, even while they are the ones who are most affected by the loss. People WANT to be supportive and helpful, but often don't know HOW.

Most of the time, people rally around the grieving and/or the suffering, for a short period of time, after which... I don't know. Life is supposed to go back to normal, and it does for most people. But for the person suffering the loss, whether it is of a loved one, some stuff, or their self concept, life will NEVER go back to the way it was before. They have to create a new "normal."

My thoughts today are about how to do that, and how to support that.
What are some ways to help someone move forward, as time does?

Some thoughts, in no particular order:

1. Be there. But be there as you have been, not only as connected to the loss. Be a friend, be a neighbor, be family.

2. Don't leave the person out of things they would have been included in "before." This includes celebrations, but it also includes more mundane things. Conversations, for example.

3. Offer distractions, things to do, reasons to get out and about, but don't set your mind on the person wanting to participate. Maybe they do, maybe they don't, and either is okay.

4. If you want to help, help. Offer to do specific things. Consider what they might need, and be proactive. Don't wait for them to ask for help, because most people are very uncomfortable with asking, and don't necessarily even know what they need. Consider tasks the person may not be comfortable doing, or hasn't had to do before. Put up Christmas lights, mow the lawn, clean the gutters, do some shopping, take care of returnable bottles. Stuff like that, that always needs doing. Or hang out and talk for an afternoon, bake something, watch the kids for a couple of hours. On the flip side of this, if you are the person people want to help, LET THEM. People like to feel helpful as much as other people need help. Learning to accept help is important. Even if it isn't specifically related to your loss, try to accept the offer. If you can (especially before something bad happens, if you are in that position), make a list of tasks that people could help with.

5. Make plans for help that might be needed in the future. Offer to organize such help. I saw a great thing recently, where someone was grievously injured, and a friend stepped up and offered to take point, and keep all the offers of help organized for the next YEAR, including an offer to send out a newsletter, of sorts, every few weeks, listing what the current needs are at that time. What a GREAT service that person is providing, both to the injured person, and to all of the people who want to help but don't know what to do. It reminded me of the care groups that I've seen for terminally ill people, where someone keeps track of the schedules of volunteers.

6. If the person seems to be doing well, that's great, but it doesn't mean you should ignore them. Both because maybe underneath, they aren't doing so well, and because companionship is still valuable once they ARE doing well. Go with their mood, if it's a good one. It's okay to sing and laugh and be silly, even after some tragedy has happened. In fact, it's vital. Life does go on, even if part of us feels like maybe it shouldn't.  No one wants to feel like they are leaving a loved one behind, so help people to see that they can be moving forward, without devaluing the past relationship. Don't push them to "get past it" but don't constantly dwell, either.

7. Consider writing a letter. If you are also grieving, but don't want to have that color every conversation you have, maybe you could write up what you are feeling, share some stories or memories, and send it. That way, they can read it when they want to, without being put on the spot or expected to be in the mood for that at any given moment. You might explain that as the reason it's in letter form, as well- even before you send it, so they know it's coming. Some things are easier to share in writing than to say out loud, especially very sad things.

8. Touch. Touch is important. Hugs, handshakes, or being a dance partner. A simple hand on a shoulder or arm. This depends on how touchy-feely you are, as well as what level of touch the other person is comfortable with. Be aware that a person who has lost a partner is likely touch deprived now, as well.

9. Last (for the purposes of this post), but not least. We discovered after our fire that people almost universally reacted with one of two phrases. It has become a family joke, of sorts, so whenever anything happens, we'll all start saying these two things to each other. It's funny, now, but it got annoying then. Try to avoid these phrases. Please.

The first was "Oh my God!" Not helpful. How is someone supposed to respond to that? Seriously, what are they supposed to say?

The second was "You're kidding!"  Well no, we weren't, and it wasn't the least bit funny. This is a knee-jerk phrase, but it is almost always inappropriate for ANY unpleasant event. Someone died? House burned down? Have cancer? Husband left? Got in a fight?  Car broken into? See, not much to kid about there.

And most of the time, it was both. "Oh my God!  You're kidding!"
This has become the typical response in our house to almost any little thing someone complains about- as a reminder that it ISN'T so bad, and a friendly nudge to remember how lucky we are.

I know people are HOPING the bad thing didn't happen, that it was a "joke" (as poor a joke as that would be), and that's why these phrases pop out at extremely inappropriate times. So practice, now, to find something else to say. "I'm sorry" might be a good start. Or "What do you need?" Or "How can I help?" followed by suggestions of possibilities.

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