Most of us think of grief occurring after a death. But anticipatory grief, or pre-bereavement, the painful emotions we feel before death, is experienced by many people facing the impending loss of a loved one or their own death. But as this experience is spoken about less often, some find it difficult to express the deep pain they are feeling and fail to receive the support they need.
Claudia Tanner spoke to Max Cassily, a 28-year-old area manager at Aldi, from Canterbury, Kent, about how he and his family dealt with his mother Nanda’s terminal illness at 54.
My dear mum was diagnosed with sarcoma, a cancer of the bone and soft tissue, in 2017. She’d shrugged her symptoms off as back pain.
She’d had cancer – of the breast – two years earlier and we thought we’d been through it all and it was over, she’d beaten it.
But this time around, the doctors told us straight: it was incurable. Our lovely, kind mother was going to die. They said she had three months left.
I remember just after we were told the bad news, all four of us – myself, mum, my dad Steve and my sister Ruby who is two years younger than me – all hugging and crying as we sat on a hospital bed.
They say there’s five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Perhaps because we had dealt with my mum having cancer before and we had already felt all the anger and sadness, we were able to move more quickly to the acceptance stage. It was dad who said to us something along the lines of “We have got to do this, and accept this is happening.”
We knew we had to embrace this, talk about it, plan for it, cry about it.
I remember leaving the hospital, and the daughter of a woman with Alzheimer’s who was in the bed next to my mum hugged us and said she had loved sitting and listening to our conversations.
Open attitude about death
Last time it was all about staying positive and helping mum pull through. We knew this time, that approach wouldn’t help at all. It was a difficult decision to stop “fighting” her illness, but this was part of the process of accepting what was happening.
You may feel angry, mum was too young to go. It wasn’t fair. But you are so sharply aware of the fact there is little time to waste. Mum was going to die and we didn’t have long. We wanted to cherish the precious time we had left with her and make the most of it. Mum lived 180 miles away from me in Eastbourne, so I arranged with my employers to allow me my two days off a week to be taken together so I could spend quality time with her.
We took a really open attitude to talking about death and making practical arrangements. We announced on Facebook and other methods to everyone who knew Nand, as she was know , that she didn’t have long left and invited people to come visit our house week in, week out.
Mum had been a drama teacher who had spent half her time in Cyprus. People from all over, some she hadn’t seen for years, were grateful for the chance to say goodbye. They would apologise for breaking down, and we’d assure them it was okay. It’s only human to get upset.
We talked with mum about what funeral arrangements she wanted. She wanted to be cremated. She loved pink and was known as “The Pink Lady” due to her hair colour. She wanted a pink casket and a pink hearse. We were able to find the first but not the latter – there mustn’t be the demand for them!
She didn’t wan’t the flowers to go to waste and be cremated with her. She requested that everyone take a single stem home with them to enjoy.
Video camera to cherish memories
We had set up a video camera to record our chats with Mum. This helped with the practical side of remembering her wishes. It also allowed us to cherish the memories she shared.
There were plenty of tears, sad ones and happy ones. It was difficult watching her break down and grieve her own death.
But there were positives. It was a time to learn more about my mum’s past. I knew dad didn’t have a great memory so I wanted to take the chance to ask her all about her childhood and upbringing.
Mum was 26 when she met dad and he was just 18. It was unusual in those days, and she was the one who dealt with the more adult things – she was the breadwinner who got them their first house.
At one point, she looked deep in thought and she turned to me and my sister and she said, “You are all okay, you’re all happy aren’t you?” She knew Ruby had her boyfriend and child. She told me I was going to marry my girlfriend Nina. To be honest, I hadn’t even thought of marriage at that point. But mum, you were right, Nina and I tied the knot earlier this year.
‘Talk about everything. It won’t change the fact that someone you love is about to die; but I promise you, it will certainly help’
We had lots of trips out, coffees and lunches, until mum got too tired and wanted to stay indoors. The last month was hard watching her struggle for breath.
On 27 February 2018, mum was rushed to A&E. She passed away while I was travelling in a desperate rush to get there on time. I remember balling my eyes out while driving, and not wanting to stop as I wanted to get to the rest of my family as quickly as possible.
I’d never seen a dead body before. I found it really helped to see Mum’s. She looked so peaceful and not in any pain, in stark contrast to the last few months.
Over 250 people attended her funeral. We live streamed in on Facebook and thousands watched it from 21 different countries.
I found it so comforting to watch back the videos of Mum in the months after her death. I got to see her laughing at jokes, crying at the situation, chatting about her first house that she bought 30 odd years ago. Just seeing how she was in her normal, every day life was lovely.
I started a blog about grieving to help other people deal with loss, which can be found here. It can be so easy to go into denial and not face difficult emotions when someone you love is dying. If I can help one person going through the same, that would be great.
Talk about everything. It won’t change the fact that someone you love is about to die, but I promise you, it will certainly help. I had felt I had to be “the strong one” to help everyone else out. So when someone asked how I was, I’d say “Yep, I’m fine”, when really I wasn’t. So I called a men’s mental health line. It helped to speak to someone I didn’t know.
Pre-grieving is an absolute emotional rollercoaster. At times you’re going to be frustrated, sad, angry and even happy, and that’s fine.
Max’s tips when facing a loved one’s death
Max’s blog outlines several pieces of advice:
Talk – if you don’t feel comfortable sharing with someone close speak to a professional. It’s okay not to be okay.
Capture you loved one on video – not only does it encourage you to talk through things, it also means you have memories on record and it can be a comfort to watch your loved one when they are gone.
Look after yourself – you cannot expect to look after and support your loved one if you don’t look after yourself.
Encourage people to say their goodbyes – it’s a chance to reminisce about old times and just generally have a laugh and forget about death.
Plan the funeral with your loved one – you’ll find comfort in knowing you’re following their wishes.
Embrace normality- try and do normal things as much as possible. Go for coffees, shopping, a meal, have friends over, watch TV, get a takeaway, and so on. A loved one with cancer is still a loved one, so, when possible, treat them the same and do the stuff you always used to do together.
Yesterday I made love to my home. I reclaimed her as my sanctuary. I got down on my hands and knees and actually reached under furniture, damp dusted the underside of things where the dog hair clung, carefully rewound the Christmas tree lights, dragged the tree outside, vacuumed the pine needles from under the carpet, and put the gasping poinsettias outside to “go to sleep.”
There are two significant aspects of this; one is that I normally mutter and spit through a perfunctory swiping of the floor—gathering the tumbleweeds of pet hair, and not quite reaching the corners. I usually make a joke that the maid will get the rest—but I am she…and well, you just can’t get good help these days. The second is that I am putting my home in order after the first Christmas and New Year since my beloved husband George’s death, last February.
Three weeks ago I was ready to bolt. I was going to take my sons to a beach somewhere and let the holiday roll right on past. It was my younger son who stopped me in my tracks. He said, “I don’t know why you have a problem with Christmas. Last year wasn’t our best Christmas, for sure, but this is our home and this is where we should be.” In those words and in his wise young eyes was the absolute spirit of George. It is just what he would have said. I hugged him in relief for his clarity and the three of us chose to celebrate the season by having a holiday much more joyful and healing than sad.
On Christmas Eve a year ago I knew that George was going to die. On Christmas Day at 11:00PM a 20lb turkey, stuffing and vegetables were dumped into a green garbage bag—no one could eat. At 3:00AM the day after Boxing Day, my older son, Nick, helped me maneuver George into the car, and I drove my husband to the hospital, where he stayed the week.
He wanted so much to be home for New Year’s that he was released that afternoon. We no sooner got home than we realized it was a mistake. As the clock ticked toward midnight, New Year’s Eve, George and I sat in the emergency room; George in a wheelchair, silent and still, enduring God knows what kind of pain, and me breathing and praying.
Our two sons, aged twenty and seventeen, were out at celebrations. I wouldn’t call them until after midnight to tell them I had brought their dad back to the hospital. They had been so relieved when he had been allowed to come home just that afternoon.
But wait, that isn’t the point of this story.
That part is the Little Drama as opposed to the Big Picture, as I havecome to view Life over the past several years. My good friend calls it the “Epic Story.” Like the Iliad. The one that is truly our path to God, which in my view is manifest in self-actualization, the path of love seeking love.
It is the divine blueprint of All That We Can Be. That path leads us right through the minefield of the small self with all its fears and rages, and life and death dramas, to our Greater Self—the poet, teacher or leader who resides in the heart of God or divine creation.
Here there is no death. Or rather death has no “sting.” There is only love—in its many and glorious forms. As we are birthed into this world, live and sooner or later die out of this world, we can be carried through our darkest nights on the grace of this knowing, or be badly bruised on the harshness of a “real” and physical world.
It actually becomes a conscious choice over which only we have control. I cannot trivialize the illness and death of my husband, the father of my sons, my business partner, mentor, lover, and soul mate. “George and Marilyn” was a phrase. For twenty-seven years we worked together, played together, had lunch together, shopped together, and on the way home in separate cars chatted on our cells to one another. We always had something to talk about. We rarely argued. We loved one another deeply and always wanted what was best for the other. We were only ever apart three or four times in more than a quarter century.
Was I afraid? Yes, I was terrified. I look back and realize I had bargained with God and offered to endure years of a million daily fears in exchange for the One Big One.
Was I sad? Yes, many nights I lay on our bedroom floor and wailed in the middle of the night, mindless in sorrow.
Was I angry? You bet. I hated the arrogance of doctors, the soullessness of CAT scans, the iniquity of the body. I was bloody outraged that my husband was to die. I wasn’t ready!
Did I suffer? In the sleepless nights and the numbed out days when I couldn’t fix what was broken, yes.
But so what? It all happened anyway—whether I liked it or not.
What emerged from the depths of my experience were a series of lessons about life and death. Really about life, mostly. They are a mere handful of truths that will help us live life more fully, prepare for our own death more objectively and accept the death of those we love.
Death is just the context for living our life. We are all going to die, one way or another, sooner or later. We all know this but continue to act surprised or betrayed when the end befalls us or one we love. There are no untimely deaths. Cancer, car accident, or crib death is merely part of the script. We all have an exit ticket.
There is a purpose to every single human life and how we express that to its fullest is our job on this planet. To the extent that we fulfill that mandate, the easier it will be for us to let go of the physical world and give ourselves over.
There is a saying that a good life means a good death. To my mind a “good” life does not mean one of perfection—pleasing God in our flawless following of rules, but of being real in all its darks and lights and striving. When we embrace this truth, we express our divinity in being God’s hands, eyes, mouth, ears, heart—healer, artist, teacher, counselor, lover—whatever.
The irony of all this is that I live in a world of healers—spiritual, energetic, natural. A world of miracles. In fact it is my business. After we sold our company and retired, George helped me realize my dream.
In July 2005, two weeks after I opened my boutique dedicated to the healing and creative arts, George collapsed and was rushed to hospital. He had a tumor from prostate cancer that had shut down his kidneys, he needed fourteen liters of blood, and he nearly died. The oncologist refused to take him on as a patient because she said there was nothing she could do. His urologist said he wouldn’t live until Christmas (2005), and he would spend the rest of his life dependent on dialysis.
George lived another eighteen months. He did it for me and our two sons, his family, and many others whose lives he touched during that time. I thought he was going to be my poster boy for miracles. How could the husband of one in the healing world die of the nastiest of illnesses—cancer?
But George did die. And in that passing emerged a profoundly beautiful love story. For in that final walk on Earth together, George, always my protector, led me through the fire of my greatest fears, and in return, I had the privilege of looking deeply into his eyes as he passed through the veil so he would not be afraid. From that moment the life and death drama of every day fell away and I witnessed my own soul’s journey.
I have lived my life in pursuit of the spiritual. I have prayed for clarity and understanding. I was certain that as I prayed for God’s Will to be done, that if I was really good and fulfilled my guidance in building this business around living life authentically and spiritually, I would be rewarded by my husband’s miraculous cure. How else could I really interpret his illness?
As it happened, something was lost in my interpretation. When I surrendered (small ‘s’) to God’s Will, I sensed this voice saying, “Are you sure?” and I answered, “Yep, yep, yep!” because, of course, I thought I knew what that meant. But what God really meant was that I would have to go where I dreaded more than anywhere on earth—and that was to the hospital. In this case, forty-two hours in the emergency section where George, awaiting medication, rocked back and forth on his gurney in pain and I sat on an overturned barf bowl for hours on end.
God’s Will also meant that I would ultimately have to give up my beloved when in my heart of hearts I knew he could have been “healed.” This is where I learned that healing does not always mean living.
To some I have shown strength or courage, but the truth is strength comes through surrender. In surrendering to what is, we can then look to what we need to lift us up and move us through a difficult passage.
This is where I can gratefully acknowledge the cast of hundreds who helped me—and George and family—by word or deed, practice, therapy or healing to take Life in hand and really live it…to death.This is the part I want to share.
The circumstances of the Little Drama are the tools for the Big Picture and serve only as the flash cards of greater meaning and purpose.
Yesterday, I plucked some faded roses from the Christmas centerpiece on the dining table. I was about to put them in the recycling bin, but instead to honor George (who never threw flowers in the garbage), I went out on the deck and, opening each dead rose one at a time, strewed them across the snow. The crisp brown outer petals fell away in my hands, and within the bud, deep pink silken petals unfurled.
Snowflakes and rose petals swirled in the air, then cascaded to the ground and rested there. As I looked out the window and saw the graceful pattern they left, it was a message that, like the roses, there is no death—just transformation and beauty when we look through the eyes of Love.
Today, December 8th, is George’s and my wedding anniversary.
The truth of a divine plan expressed in the chapter above is illustrated now in the diagnosis of prostate cancer in my life partner, Athan a year ago, October. Rather than being devastated by the news, we see it as destiny.
How can that be? There is a miracle unfolding for a new treatment and Athan is the sole volunteer to test it.
The irony? We have spent the past seven years involved in the testing and research of the cancer fighting properties proven in the phenolic compound oleocanthal only found in olive oil.
The adventure continues and finding the love, light and lessons in every moment is what happiness is all about.
“Thank you for the intervention. Friends and family came to be with me. I agreed to be admitted to hospital. Am waiting for a bed. I had a horrible breakdown. I am sorry for worrying you.”
This was my message posted on Facebook to friends on October 19, 2014. It was over a year since my husband, Bob, passed away. Every day since he died on June 8, 2013 was like walking through thick, muddy water with a constant fog clouding my head.
I was a willing participant in the loss and grief cycle from day one. I had no interest in the future. The past was painful, the present bleak. Every day I woke up crying, for days, weeks, months, and soon a year passed. Depression is part of the initial journey. Many people feel like they can’t survive without their loved one. The agony is enormous, but the pain starts to diminish with time.
It is natural to experience intense grief after someone close dies, but complicated grief is different.
My story was different. The depression was pervasive and continued, even escalated. I journaled the experience, intermittently, in a blog. Posting my thoughts gave me temporary relief. Then I’d go down the rabbit hole again. What I didn’t realize was that I was experiencing something more than a normal grief journey. Though not diagnosed, researching my symptoms led me to what’s known as Complicated Grief.
The Intensity of Complicated Grief
According to The Center for Complicated Grief (CG) “[it] is a form of grief that takes hold of a person’s mind and won’t let go. It is natural to experience intense grief after someone close dies, but complicated grief is different. Troubling thoughts, dysfunctional behaviors or problems regulating emotions get a foothold and stall adaptation. Complicated grief is the condition that occurs when this happens.
“People with complicated grief don’t know what’s wrong. They assume that their lives have been irreparably damaged by their loss and cannot imagine how they can ever feel better. Grief dominates their thoughts and feelings with no respite in sight.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, CG can be determined “when the intensity of grief has not decreased in the months after your loved one’s death. Some mental health professionals diagnose CG when the grieving continues to be intense, persistent and debilitating beyond 12 months … Getting the correct diagnosis is essential for appropriate treatment, so a comprehensive medical and psychological exam is often done.”
The Diagnosis That Probably Saved My Life
I had seen several therapists. They tried to help, under the assumption that I was grieving as any woman would after the death of her husband. What I didn’t tell them was that my sadness had escalated to suicide ideation.
On the evening of Saturday October 18, 2014, I posted on Facebook: “Please take care of my cats.” My cry for help wasn’t a mystery to friends who were following my downward spiral. Phone calls went out from people in several cities to friends who lived near me who came to my house, then later family. Despite my uncharacteristic reaction screaming at everyone who entered the door and yelling at them to leave, I eventually calmed down and agreed to be taken to the hospital.
I was put in a room with no windows and a security guard. Some family members came in. The doctor followed and told me the medication I’d been taking for many years to control my clinical depression wasn’t working. When that happens, ironically, it can make you more depressed.
That diagnosis rocked me to the core and probably saved my life. Every day had been torture. And now I had someone who was telling me they could help me and life could actually get better.
I agreed to be admitted to hospital and new medication was prescribed by a hospital psychiatrist. I stayed there just over a week, eventually getting day passes, then a weekend pass. After my release, I was closely monitored to ensure my medication was doing what it should have done. I started seeking other ways to help me out of the dark pit and took part in several Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) programs, or what I refer to as retraining the brain to focus on the positive.
Live in the Moment
Today, I lead what those newly grieving are told is “the new normal life” because, when our loved ones die, life as we knew it is inevitably changed forever and will never go back to what we thought was our normal life. As Buddhist monk and peace activist, Nhat Hanh, said, “It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.”
The new life can be good if we come to terms with our losses; remember them with loving kindness; embrace our family, friends, and new people who come into our lives and accept that nothing is ever permanent in life. The biggest lesson I learned is to truly live in the moment and enjoy each precious day as a gift.
If you, or someone you know, has been suffering with extreme grief symptoms for over a year it might be time to seek help.
Coping with Grief and Loss
While grieving a loss is an inevitable part of life, there are ways to help cope with the pain, come to terms with your grief and eventually, find a way to pick up the pieces and move on with your life. Here are some suggestions from Help Guide:
1. Acknowledge your pain.
2. Accept that grief can trigger many different and unexpected emotions.
3. Understand that your grieving process will be unique to you.
4. Seek out face-to-face support from people who care about you.
5. Support yourself emotionally by taking care of yourself physically.
Seattle-based cookbook author Caroline Wright can teach you how to make a salad for four with grilled escarole, peaches, prosciutto, mozzarella and basil oil.
She can show you how a sandwich of grilled manchego cheese and sausage on peasant bread is made in the style of a master chef from Catalonia. For dessert, she’ll tempt you with a wicked coconut-caramel cake with malted chocolate frosting.
But when the leftovers are wrapped and put away, Wright can also impart some hard-won wisdom: how to talk to kids about death.
Wright, who studied cuisine at a renowned cooking school in Burgundy, France, always wanted to write as much as develop her skills in a well-appointed kitchen. At age 23, she became a food editor at Martha Stewart Living, and later brought her crisp, engaging voice to her cookbooks, Twenty-Dollar, Twenty-Minute Meals, Cake Magic! and Catalan Food: Culture and Flavors from the Mediterranean (co-authored with Daniel Olivella).
She hasn’t stopped writing about food. But in 2017 she was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, an aggressive, rapidly growing brain tumor, similar to the one that killed Sen. John McCain. With the possibility of death looming large, Wright turned her prose toward facing her own mortality — and starting the conversation with her kids.
Luminous and voluble in person, Wright is a self-described, inveterate doer. When not writing or cooking, she’s pursuing photography or quilting or knitting. She can’t stop making things happen, whether it’s tinkering with recipes for her next cookbook, or organizing a panel discussion at Town Hall (Saturday, Nov. 9) on children and grief. The event will explore how we talk to kids about death, a topic with no simple bearings.
Wright has written two recent books on the theme of child bereavement, inspired by her and her husband Garth’s agonizing challenge of communicating with their young sons about Wright’s still-uncertain prognosis.
The Caring Bridge Project (which came out in February) is a collection of Wright’s online journal entries from her year of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. It’s part of Wright’s written legacy to her boys, Henry, 7, and Theodore, 4. But she intended it, too, for a broader readership: families facing similar experiences with children’s anxiety and despair over loss.
This past summer she published Lasting Love, a picture book for reading aloud to bereaved kids. The heartbreaking but emotionally affirming story, with comforting illustrations by Willow Heath, is about a dying mother returning home from the hospital with a formidable friend: a mighty, furry creature who will always remain by her child’s side, as both an avatar of her powerful love, and as a faithful companion who never judges grief in any form.
Halfway through the tale, the mother passes.
“The child would know,” says Wright of her decision to include the mother’s death. “So stepping around that seemed silly. I wanted the kid to be part of spreading her ashes.”
For Wright, there was no option but honesty. She knew her kids would watch her change, physically, during treatment, and they would find her less available. Keeping them in the dark — especially the older boy, Henry — would have been unfair. “The thing kids can’t rebound from is broken trust,” she says. “There’s no resolution for that.”
When she and Garth first talked with Henry about her cancer, and how she and her doctors were doing everything they could, but she might die anyway, there were tears. But Henry devised a helpful analogy:
“Mommy’s brain is a garden, and there’s a weed in it.”
“Henry and I have had amazing conversations, poetic and hard,” Wright says. “If I die, I want both boys to have a relationship with their memories of me. If I lied to them, it would sully that relationship.”
Thirty-two months after Wright was told she’d likely have 12 to 18 months to live, she is miraculously cancer-free, but vulnerable to a swift reemergence of the glioblastoma. If you take cancer out of the picture, she actually became healthier while fighting the disease, radically changing her diet, dropping 40 pounds and growing lean and strong through yoga, energy work and exercise.
Wright says the boys now occasionally bring up her cancer at random times. When Theodore recently saw her short hair wet and matted after a shower, he grew weepy, recalling her treatment-related baldness, and associating it with being away from him.
The profundity of loss, and the despondency of a child left without the constancy of a loved one’s care, makes Lasting Love a benevolent bridge between a parent and son or daughter going through these troubles.
“The theme of Lasting Love is, literally, love lasting forever,” Wright says. “That’s what we were telling Henry. That was the only piece of hope that we could give him: Mommy’s fighting very hard. And even if mommy dies, the connection you have with her is never going to go away. And there are many loving people surrounding you.”
Wright’s Town Hall event is part of her outreach mission to regional families and to nonprofits concerned with children and bereavement. Among them is Safe Crossings, which supports grieving kids of all ages, at little or no cost. Amy Thompson, program coordinator, will join the panel, along with therapists from other organizations.
Thompson says the field of grief counseling for early childhood through adolescence is growing because of a rise in traumatic losses: gun-related murders, opioid-overdose deaths and suicides. Grieving kids are often isolated, subject to bullying, and told to “get over it” by clueless adults.
“The message from society to grieving young people is ‘move on,’ ” Thompson says. “But if you’re intensely grieving for months or even years after a death, there’s nothing wrong with you. Loss changes over time. As children grow and reach new developmental milestones, they can better process the permanency of death, and we see them regrieve.”
The attention Wright and Lasting Love are receiving in therapy circles and in the media is helping to normalize grief in children — in everyone, really. When she learned she had beaten seemingly impossible odds and, while not out of the woods, is without cancer, Wright celebrated with her family by making a favorite cake, although with a few adjustments: it was sugar-free, gluten-free and covered in carob frosting instead of her once-beloved chocolate.
“I live with great respect for this thing that may happen to me again,” Wright says of the glioblastoma cells that might still be lurking in her brain. “But I don’t live in fear of it. There is nothing to be gained by that. I might die and I might not.”
But the bond between parent and child will last beyond death, she says. “Kids are resilient. With support, they will have full lives.”
For Kessler, a noted grief expert, finding a path forward became an unexpected and integral part of his life. While Kessler was writing this book, his son David, who had overcome a drug habit only to start using again, died in 2016 at the age of 21.
The founder of Grief.com, Kessler, 60, spent several years working with the late psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (author of the groundbreaking On Death and Dying) and co-authored two books with her.
“Our grief is as unique as our fingerprint. We all have different backgrounds of love, and we all approach grief in our own ways.”
Additionally, Kessler, who lives in Los Angeles, has counseled countless individuals, led workshops and delivered presentations throughout his long career. He is a trained thanatologist (someone who studies death and dying) and has been onsite at crime scenes, plane crashes and other traumatic events to help grieving loved ones. Kessler also lost his mother at age 13, and because he was under 14, was prevented from being in her hospital room with her at the end of her life.
Next Avenue: People in grief often ask you where they are supposed to find meaning in a loss. Where are some of those places?
David Kessler: I think that meaning is everywhere, just waiting to be found. We can find meaning in how [our loved ones’] lives touched ours. There is meaning in how we’re changed by their lives, and how we changed theirs.
In your work as a grief counselor, you tell people their grief won’t get ‘smaller’ over time, but they must get ‘bigger.’ How does that happen?
When people ask me ‘How long will I grieve?’ I respond by asking them, ‘How long will your loved one be dead?’ We can’t change the pain, but we can build a meaningful life around that pain.
Think of the memories you have of your parents or your grandparents, that live with you and that you can share with your children and with your grandchildren. That is the growth that can come from pain.
In our culture, we talk so much about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but we should talk about Post Traumatic Stress Growth. It’s after loss that growth is possible.
In today’s world, you say grief has been ‘minimized and sanitized.’ Why is it such a struggle to bear witness to someone’s pain? How can we be present when people we know are grieving?
Our generation is probably one of the last generations that remembers when death was part of life. I remember as a boy riding in the car, and seeing a hearse driving down the street ahead of us. Our grandparents may have died at home, now death generally happens in a hospital.
We are a grief-illiterate society. We are also a society that wants to ‘fix’ everything. When someone is grieving, they aren’t broken. They don’t need to be fixed. They need someone to sit with them in their pain and to witness their grief. In some ways, I’m teaching the lessons of our great-grandparents, who did those things when someone died.
Some people skip funerals because they are afraid of facing pain or remembering their own losses. If you are a person whose friend didn’t attend the funeral of your loved one, how do you move forward in that relationship?
First of all, I really encourage people to attend funerals. It’s important. However, if you have a friend who didn’t attend a funeral for someone you loved, know that it wasn’t about you. It wasn’t a statement about your friendship. It was a statement about their own pain. They didn’t do it to you — they just did it.
If you’ve had a friendship for twenty years, forgive them because of that twenty years.
You talk about the difference between private and public grief. Can you explain this?
Our grief is as unique as our fingerprint. We all have different backgrounds of love, and we all approach grief in our own ways.
In our generation, we were taught to be stoic. Think of the example of Jacqueline Kennedy, who didn’t cry publicly after JFK’s assassination. People said, ‘That’s what strong grief looks like.’ But she was later quoted as saying, ‘That was the First Lady grieving.’ Of course she cried in private.
We all act differently in public. Some people cry with friends, but some only cry alone.
Quoting Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, you say that people can be left with ‘unfinished business’ when someone from whom they have been estranged dies. How can they make peace with that?
We have to accept who they were, and the role they played in this lifetime. I always say it takes two people to tango — it wasn’t all you, and it wasn’t all them.
I believe that if you ask forgiveness sincerely in your heart, the person who is gone will feel it sincerely in theirs. A lot of people report that they have better relationships with people in death than they did in life.
While you do touch on the death of your son David at various points in the book, it isn’t until the end, in a chapter called ‘Everything Has Changed Forever,’ where you tell the story of his death and the days following. Why did you decide to talk about your personal experience of grief at the end of the book rather than at the beginning?
This isn’t a memoir, or a book about my grief. My grief is just one example; the book has many stories from other people about their grief.
A month after David died, a forty-three-year-old friend of mine died of the flu. Another friend lost their beloved dog not long after that. When I offered consolation, people said, ‘Your grief is worse than mine,’ but that’s not true. All tears count. The worst grief is always yours.
How are you finding meaning?
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross never intended for the five stages of grief to be linear. They don’t prescribe how you are supposed to grieve, they describe how you are supposed to grieve. As I write in the book, my work isn’t about my son’s death, but his death has deepened my work. And finding meaning is not extraordinary, it’s ordinary. Grief is not about pain. It’s about love.
My husband and I shared a narrow, shoebox-shaped closet in our home here, his clothes facing mine from double-hanging wardrobes mounted on the walls. After he died of pancreatic cancer on Nov. 1, 2017, a month after his diagnosis, I’d often wander into the closet to search for his smell on his shirts. My mother caught me one day sniffing his shirts and crying, and said, “You can’t keep doing this forever.”
“What should I do?” I asked.
“You need to find the right people to give his clothes to,” she replied.
I packed his shirts, slacks, shoes, belts and ties into the gunpowder-gray suitcases we’d bought for our trip through western Ireland years earlier. That same day, a Federal District Court judge in San Francisco ordered the Trump administration to keep on renewing the permits that gave young undocumented immigrants permission to temporarily live and work in the United States, as prescribed by the Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
I noted the events in my journal in short, unemotional sentences: “Cleaned closet, packed Mike’s stuff away;” “Good news of the day: DACA still alive.”
I parked the suitcases in a corner of my garage, where they stayed for 16 months, gathering dust as the president made a mess out of the country’s already messy immigration system.
In these months, my daughter’s nanny, a naturalized citizen, lost her brother in Mexico, where he had been deported last year after living illegally for 26 years in Phoenix. (His wife and three children still live here.) The nanny said that he’d died of a broken heart.
Also in these months, accounts of Central Americans released from immigration detention and dumped at the Greyhound bus station in town began showing up in my news feeds, followed by reports about Central Americans lost in the punishing desert that straddles the Arizona-Mexico border, or about children falling ill and dying in overcrowded Border Patrol stations.
I had written articles of my own about the conditions inside these stations during my stint as Phoenix bureau chief for The Times. I’d also written a report in 2014 from inside a makeshift shelter that the Border Patrol had set up for migrant children in the border city of Nogales, Ariz. Then, as now, despair had led thousands of people to leave their home countries in search of what so many of us in America take for granted: the right to live without fear of being kidnapped, tortured, killed.
What I saw at that shelter stayed with me. The children sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor, in dirty clothes, under blankets that looked like sheets of aluminum foil. These memories, and the new crop of migrant stories on my news feeds, only added to the grief of losing my husband at the relatively young age of 44 — and to the anguish of raising our daughter alone and far away from my family, in a country that is legally my own but that has made it tough for me at times to feel that this is the country where I belong.
My husband was a proud American, the son of a nurse and a gas-meter reader born and bred in a blue-collar mill town in Central Massachusetts, where, like him, almost everyone was white. He was curious enough about the world to marry me, an immigrant from Brazil. When our daughter was born, he spoke proudly about the jumble of heritages coursing through her veins — Scots-Irish and French Canadian from his side, and indigenous, Portuguese and African from mine. I sometimes called her “a mutt.” He called her “the perfect American.”
He was an optimist and in the days right after Mr. Trump’s election, he kept his glass-half-full attitude, telling me that the unorthodox president-elect might be just what was needed to get things going in Washington. But that didn’t last long. I remember the glum expression on his face as he checked the new president’s Twitter feed while silently sipping his coffee. I urged him to find another morning routine, to check out of social media for a while.
He told me, “I wished Trump knew the immigrants we know, all these good, honest people.”
One morning this spring, I logged onto his email for only the second time since his death. I typed my name in the search field, watched the results populate the screen and scrolled through the messages, contemplating the simplicity of our life, the tenderness of his words, the intimacy we shared, all of it contained in subject lines: “cool summer camp ideas,” “add to nanny to-do list,” “miss you while you’re away.”
One such line caught my eye — “The toll it’s taken,” it read. The message, dated Nov. 16, 2016, was in the drafts folder. I clicked it open.
I haven’t been sleeping well since last Tuesday. I’m really upset about the election. Was in denial there for a few days and tried to put a good face on it. But I just need to express how angry, frightened and disgusted I am. You know me — I don’t like to emote — but I am really crushed by this. So deeply disappointed in my country and in many people that I know.
I’m sorry. I love you.
Just that week, I had received a text message from a friend, asking if I might be willing to volunteer as a Spanish-English interpreter when the next group of Central American migrants seeking asylum arrived at her church. The church is one of dozens to have banded together to offer a safety net of sorts for these migrants, giving them basic health checks, some toiletries and clothes, and making travel arrangements so that they can reunite with relatives already settled in the United States. I was on the fence about it, in part because I was afraid to face the migrants’ sadness.
I found the courage I needed in my husband’s unsent message to me.
By then, the migrants at the church had come and gone. But I knew that another group would be around soon.
The next day, I got a text from my friend: “It looks like 11 a.m. Please don’t tell anyone.”
I put the suitcases in my car and waited for instructions.
“When you get here, ask for me directly,” she wrote.
I drove south and west from my house. On the way, I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” the album that my husband played for me on our first date. I cried. I talked to him.
I got off in a part of the city full of warehouses and big, empty lots. I walked into the church. Just as my mother suggested, I had found the right people to give his clothes to.
When someone you know is grieving, it’s natural to want to reach out and help. But often, it’s difficult to know what to say when someone dies. Faced with the enormity of loss, words feel inadequate. It’s not uncommon to feel paralyzed, terrified of saying the wrong thing.
There’s no perfect combination of words that will take away a grieving person’s pain. But there are ways for you to show them that you care, from sending a card, to bringing over a home cooked meal, or just showing up in person.
From what to write in a sympathy card to when it’s appropriate to pick up the phone, we asked grief advocates, therapists, and other experts for their advice on how to support friends and loved ones when someone dies.
But before you pick up the phone, it’s worth considering your relationship with the person. “If you aren’t close, definitely don’t call within days of a tragic event or difficult news,” says Emily McDowell, co-author and illustrator of There’s No Good Card for This. “Phone calls can feel intrusive and overwhelming at this time. A card, an email, or a text is better. However, if you are good friends or close family, call! The person can always choose to not pick up.”
If you do call, let your friend or loved one know that you’re there for them, and make sure they know that there’s no pressure for them to call you back. If you’re not sure what to say, something along the lines of, “I’m so sorry to hear about [the person who died],” or “I can’t imagine what this must feel like for you” are good sentiments to fall back on.
“I tend to make eye contact,” Devine says. “And maybe a little nod of the head to say I see you, and I’m going to respect your space right now, but I want you to know that I see you.”
The best way to show support for someone who’s grieving is to let them know you’re there for them — and then actually show up.
“When words are inadequate, it’s your presence that makes a difference,” says Dr. Alan Wolfelt, the director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. If there’s a funeral or memorial service, make an effort to attend. “You’ll always remember the people that do, in fact, show up,” Wolfelt says.
If you’re unsure what to say to someone at a funeral, it’s okay just to let them know that you’re sorry for their loss. It lets the person know that you recognize their pain without making any assumptions about their grief.
Even if you’re not close to the person who’s grieving, it’s almost always a good idea to send a card. If you’re unsure what to write in a sympathy card, it’s okay to keep it short and sweet.
“All you really need to say is some variation of: “I’m sorry you’re going through this. I’m here. I’m thinking about you, I love you,” says McDowell, who also has a line of empathy cards. “Your job here is to let the person know you care, and making the effort of sending a card is a great way to do this. Don’t be afraid to share a favorite story or memory about the person who has passed on.”
Gifts are another way to let someone know that you’re thinking of them, especially if you can’t be there in person. You can send something practical, like a book on grief or a voucher for a massage, or something sentimental. “I love to give flowers,” Crowe says, who recommends giving something that’s meaningful to you. “If you like music, make a playlist. If you’re crafty, knit a coaster.”
When someone is grieving, one of the simplest ways to show support is to offer to help with chores and other practical tasks.
Don’t wait for the person to ask for help. They might feel like they don’t want to burden anyone, or they might not even realize they need help, says Crowe. Just go ahead and offer — but be specific. While people often say “let me know if you need anything,” it’s much easier for someone to take you up on a specific offer. For example, you could offer to pick up the kids from school or day care, bring over a home-cooked meal, or help tackle a stack of paperwork.
Whatever you offer, make sure it’s something you can really follow through on. “It’s important that the offer is something you actually like to do,” says Crowe. “Don’t offer to cook if cooking is stressful for you, for example.”
“Many times, people in their anxiety will say silly, inappropriate things,” Wolfelt says. Often, people fall back on clichés and trite comments in an attempt to comfort people in grief, many of which diminish the loss, and cause unintended pain. Some phrases to avoid: everything happens for a reason; God wouldn’t give you more than you can handle; what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; at least they lived a good life.
Another phrase to avoid: “I know how you feel.” Even if you’ve experienced a similar loss, you shouldn’t assume that someone else is feeling the same way you did. “Empathy gives you insight into some of the emotions your friend might be having, but saying ‘I know how you feel’ can sound dismissive of their unique experience, and cause them to feel alienated,” says McDowell.
Often, after someone dies, whether consciously or unconsciously, people avoid saying the person’s name. But Devine says you shouldn’t be afraid: saying the person’s name won’t make someone that’s grieving more upset; instead, it will let them know that you remember the person, and you’re open to talking about them. “If you are uncomfortable or worried about upsetting somebody, and they’re saying their person’s name, and you cringe and walk away, you’re erasing their person,” Devine says. “You’re basically saying, I don’t see this, this is too hard.”
Even after everyone else goes back to their day-to-day lives, it can be helpful to keep checking in on the person in the weeks and months after their loss.
“Loss doesn’t have an expiration date,” McDowell says. “If something truly bad has happened, a person’s life has changed forever, and just because time has passed, they probably haven’t stopped thinking about their grief.”
If you want to reach out but have no idea what to say, McDowell recommends starting with a simple question, like “how are you today?” Adding “today,” acknowledges the fact that they’re going through something painful, while also giving the person an opening to share how they’re feeling.
Reaching out to a friend who has just lost a loved one can be daunting, but it’s better to try and risk making a mistake than not try at all. When people avoid addressing a tragedy out of fear of making things worse, the person grieving can end up feeling abandoned.
“If you don’t know what to say, it’s okay to say that,” McDowell says. “Our friends don’t expect us to respond perfectly and eloquently to every situation. They just want to know that we care enough to try.”