On Dodging Grief

My friend J Mase III, poet, writer, and co-founder of the weekly #qfaith Twitter chat, wrote an article about grief this week. He’d asked his followers about how others react to grief, what they say, and what we wish others said.

Two weeks ago, a friend of mine died. We met at our church 4 years ago; he was an usher and deacon, and his wife often sat in our row. The two of them were and are among the sweetest and most grounded people I know; easy-going, open-hearted, travel-lovers, and wonderfully matched as a couple. While she recovered from breast cancer, he developed a terminal disease, underwent a series of conventional and experimental treatments, and then, about a week and a half ago, went to sleep and never woke.

We all knew it was coming. We just didn’t know when. We saw his suits hanging more loosely around his shoulders and a shadow form in his cheeks—but it was easy to deny impending death because he so thoroughly distracted us with a life that he lived the hell out of. His smile was perennial and his capacity for graciousness, kindness, and other-centeredness was undimmed by either declining health or increasing pain.

I can’t imagine anyone who knew him and won’t miss him. I also don’t know anyone who knew him who’s not glad he’s now beyond the reach of cancer.

Grief is a sneaky thing at times like this. Mainstream culture gives us a straightforward protocol for grief: for family, you get this much time to deny, cry, or pout. With friends, that much. For people with whom you had a social network in common, maybe a little. With celebrities like Nelson Mandela or Paul Walker, follow the news cycle without being maudlin, and then move on.

Who makes up these rules? They don’t fit for me. They don’t match my relationships and I don’t live by them.

Shame and belonging researcher Brené Brown has a gift for explaining how our responses to the vulnerabilities of others can open up our relationships or abridge them. The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) animated part of a talk on empathy in which she describes how sympathy falls short, can be dismissive, and is often about assuaging the discomfort of the speaker rather than the person in grief, sadness, or pain:

One of the things we do sometimes in the face of very difficult conversations is we try to make things better. If I share something with you that’s very difficult, I’d rather you say, “Phew! I don’t even know what to say right now; I’m just so glad you told me.”

Because the truth is rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection. —Brené Brown

So here are 5 things I told J that I wished folk said when I was grieving:

“I don’t know what to say, so I’m going to be quiet. I love you.”

“I’ll only tell you my grief story if you ask—and you don’t have to.”

“Wanna play some pool? Can pick you up at 8.”

“Doesn’t matter that you’re not grieving a relative. It doesn’t hurt any less.”

“You can feel whatever you feel around me. I’m listening.”

Sometimes, I said, people fill the silences and the space with their noise, awkwardness, and fear-projected-outward, missing opportunities to just be. Not everyone can stand the light of vulnerability or loss or hope, and so when they can’t, yet show up in your space anyway, managing them while managing your own grief becomes an unnecessary and burdensome mission.

There are also some who can stand that light, who can bear it, who will sit with others through sadness without fixing, meddling, or minimizing. Are they rare souls? Does it matter?

I appreciate those I know. And I hope this year to be more of one for the people around me.

Check out J’s article at the Huffington Post: Rules for grieving in the New Year—or Grieving like it’s 1999. What grieving rules or customs do you live by? Share in the comments below.

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