This article is going to be slightly different in that it contains no mention of the dreaded a word (autism). Having struggled with writers block for a few weeks and accumulated about a dozen half-finished articles which I can’t bear to look at again, I decided it was time to write about something different, but still very personal to me. Greif. Before I get into the meat of the article, I’d like to put emphasise the word ‘personal’. People grieve in different ways, and while the strategies for support that I’m suggesting work very well for me, they might not work for everyone.
As some of you already know, Jane Hughes, my mother and guest blogger for Seeing Double, passed away late October. She’d been diagnosed with lung cancer for several years, and while we were all sad to see her go, it was time. I hadn’t lost anyone that close to me before, and my limited understanding of grief mostly came from what I’d seen on television… families huddled together in one room with the curtains closed, eyes red from crying, the angst ridden teenage brother occasionally screaming that it wasn’t fair and there is no God… But it wasn’t like that for me at all. After going to see the body, I headed up to my bedroom, watched Doctor Who and did some colouring. The next day I went swimming, stopped at the pub for a drink, came home, cooked dinner and watched The Purge: Anarchy. Two weeks later I went back to work.
Throughout all of this I felt vaguely numb, almost as though I was sleep walking. People left copious amounts of food on my door step, and I ate most of it, even though it made me feel a bit guilty. I’d been struggling with my weight for about a year before Jane’s death, often using binge eating as a method for coping with anxiety and then just feeling even more anxious as I got wider and my clothes either stopped fitting altogether or threatened to burst at the seams… Anyway, that’s not necessarily relevant to this article. The point is, people bought too much food. Too much even for the family’s binge eater. I actually enjoyed cooking at the time, as doing something simple and methodical was a good way for me to work through the numbness.
I asked my support worker to help me shop for a dress for Jane’s funeral, and although she accompanied me on the trip and offered her opinion on the various dresses I picked up, apart from that she barely spoke a word. At the end of the trip she apologised, explaining that she just didn’t know what to say. That’s fair enough. So many people say the wrong thing when a person dies.
If you want to support somebody who’s grieving, comments like ‘it must be so hard’ and ‘you never get over something like that’ might not be as helpful as they seem. Sure, they’re one hundred percent true, and sometimes it’s nice to have someone acknowledge what you’re going through. But sometimes, you just want a bit of distraction.
If a friend of yours has lost someone close to them, let them come to you if they feel the need to have a deep conversation. In the meantime, spend some time together doing what you always do. For me, that would be a good film and a bottle of wine, a game of Cards Against Humanity or a three-hour discussion of our favourite fantasy authors. Maybe you usually hang out with your friends at a game of football, a museum, a beauty salon or a trip to theatre. Do it. It might seem trivial in comparison to what’s just happened, but when I was grieving I clung to the trivial aspects of life like Frodo clung to the one ring when he’s finally made it to the top of Mount Doom. My everyday routine bought a semblance of normality back to my life. When I logged on to Facebook it wasn’t to read all the heartfelt messages from people who’d found out about Jane, it was to look at the same photos of cats that I always looked at before going to bed. I mean come on, you can’t really go wrong with I Can Haz Cheezburger…
If a family member of yours has lost someone close to them, you might want to give them some practical support. Bringing food to their house seems to be the accepted convention, and although I moan about it I’m incredibly grateful for all the sumptuous home cooking people left on my doorstep. But instead of bringing a grieving person food, it might be more beneficial to do some cooking with them. Bring the ingredients round, and make humus, lasagne, chili, fairy cakes… whatever you like. A simple activity like cooking provides distraction that a grieving person needs without seeming too overwhelming. Perhaps you could also do laundry together or go for a walk in the woods.
Again, don’t force that person to have a deep conversation if they don’t want one. Allow them to come to you. Personally, I find it much easier to talk about the deep stuff when my hands are busy and I don’t have to look the other person in the eye. My hand bag is stuffed with fiddle toys and I’ve got a huge stack of art therapy colouring books and felt tip pens in my bedroom. If you are going to talk about grief, I think that conversation is more likely to happen while you’re cooking, or walking or doing laundry, because those activities should distract you both from any awkwardness.
And friends, family, remember that just because someone has died doesn’t mean every activity is now done in their memory. I’ve been invited to cinema trips in Jane’s memory, tree planting in Jane’s memory, walks in Jane’s memory… Really a cinema is just a cinema, a tree is a tree and a walk is… well, a walk, and constantly being reminded that your grieving stops it being fun.
Which leads me to my next point… If you’re sending a Christmas card to anyone who’s grieving, just write ‘Merry Christmas’. That’s honestly all the card needs. My Dad opened most of the family Christmas cards himself after Jane died (I was far too busy doing what I do best in the winter months: consuming my body weight in fancy shiraz and a million different types of cheese). A lot of the Christmas cards contained long, heartfelt messages about how awful it must be, and how people weren’t going to wish us a merry Christmas because we were bound to have a horrible time. Those kind of messages, as authentic, heartfelt and well intentioned as they are, were just depressing to read. They also act like a bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy… after all, you try having a good day when everyone around you is telling your life is terrible.
I had a similar problem on mother’s day. I went to work, I came home, I watched Netflix, it should have been a normal day. But I received so many heart felt messages saying mother’s day was going to be terrible that I was in a foul mood all day- eventually succumbing to peer pressure and having a long drunk cry
If you’re supporting someone who’s grieving, please don’t ever tell them that they’re going to have a terrible day. And if you know that a difficult day is coming up… a birthday or mother’s day or the anniversary of the death- don’t remind them. The best thing to do is just allow that person to continue with their daily routine. Or, if you really want to help, provide them with a fun distraction like the fantasy discussion or the cards against humanity game I suggested earlier. Mother’s day was horrible, but I actually had a great Christmas on the year of Jane’s death. I was given some fantastic gifts, the food was amazing, the drinks were amazing, the Doctor Who Christmas special was… well, lacklustre, but it wouldn’t be Christmas without Doctor Who. Anyway, it was a merry time, and even though I’d just lost my mother, it would have been perfectly acceptable for people to wish me a Merry Christmas.
A final bit of advice before I finish the article… If one of your work colleagues is grieving, don’t act surprised when they come back to work. I tried to return as soon as possible because a) I was on a 0 hours’ contract with no sick pay and b) I wanted my routine to be normal again. That’s exactly how you should act when a grieving colleague comes back to work. Normal. My experience returning to work was mainly positive. But two very stupid things happened, and if I wasn’t still a little numb they really would have pissed me off.
During a meeting with the social worker who helped me look for employment and manage work related stress, I was calmly told that she knew exactly what I was going through because her dog had died. Her dog. I’ll acknowledge that losing a pet can be a big deal for some people. If Shelby (my bearded dragon) passed away I’d be pretty upset. But losing a pet is not the same as losing a mother, and it’s pretty insensitive to compare the two.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, when one of the Mum’s at work found out what had happened she immediately started crying because her Mum had died a few years earlier, and she understood how I felt. I was left trying to comfort her awkwardly (something I’ve never been particularly good at) and wondering why I was the one doing the comforting when it was me that had just lost a parent.
My Dad described a number of similarly embarrassing conversations he found himself in after Jane’s death. When he was printing out the programmes for her funeral, the woman who did the printing looked at the dates and exclaimed ‘oh, she didn’t live very long!’ Not something you want to hear when your wife has just died. When he went to the bank to sort out Jane’s will, the staff member he spoke to started monologuing her life story, explaining how hard it was for her when her Dad died and how things were going to get so much worse in a year or so. Again, not something you want to hear from anyone, let alone a bank employee who you barely know.
Honestly, when someone you know is grieving I don’t think you should spill your life story or clutch at your hair and wail that you couldn’t possibly understand but you know it must be so, so hard. However well intentioned, these kind of comments have the potential to be more harmful than helpful. Instead, remind that person that you’re there for them if they need you. Don’t dwell too much on their grief or force them to have the kind of deep, personal conversations they might not be ready for. Support them by helping them have fun, keeping their routine going and providing enough distractions to take their mind off the overwhelming numbness and lethargy. Cook with them. Watch a film with them. Discuss your favourite book, celebrity crush or who you think will sit the iron throne with them (Daenerys obviously!). And when they’re ready to return to work, don’t make a fuss, just let them. Because life goes on.