April 8, 2015

How to sit with Grief.


A woman sat with me in the steam room, at the Alaska Club, an angel of mercy that I couldn’t really see through eyes strained and space misty.

Originally from a village in Western Alaska, she was no stranger to grief, and it showed in her compassion toward me.

I had just come from across town, where I was collecting my son’s belongings, from the place he had been staying.

Two days after his death, his landlord called to say we owed them $1500. I didn’t know he was behind on rent.

When I arrived at the place where my son had stayed, the folks there tried to hug me with one arm and extend the other for their share.

Of course we were planning to pay whatever my son owed, but timing is everything.

To call up grieving parents and demand payment was a bit much. What was even worse was the way they wanted to gossip about his bereaved girlfriend. I paid them off, got my deceased child’s things, and left, shaking. On my way home, I stopped to steam. In the darkened room I let the tears come.

Interruption science says that it takes a substantial amount of time to recover from just one phone call. Days before, I held the phone to my ear and heard that my son had taken his own life. Within one hour, I called my husband and other close relatives. In a daze, I called work to let them know I wouldn’t make a scheduled engagement. I spoke to the police. I gathered my other two sons, to break the news to them. My house filled up with family and friends. I received a call from the donor folks so they could get medical history and determine what parts of my son’s body could be used. There was conversation of funeral plans.

By the time I made it to the athletic club, I was saturated with the relentless details of the days past, and the shock was beginning to wear off.

She spoke to me in a quiet voice, and shared with me stories of her own losses in life.

She did not give advice, she held space while I went beyond that hollow place. I was so thankful that someone with her background was there that night.

People who have experienced great loss are often the most compassionate.

People who have grieved deeply can provide support that goes beyond knowledge and theory.

When a loved one exits life, it is a fragile time for the ones left behind.

Here are some general guidelines for how to help people through the death of a loved one—this is what I found to be most helpful:

Show up. It is overwhelming at times to have a house full of people, but the outpouring of love propped us up in the days immediately after our lives had changed. People cried, talked and laughed in the same space, and it was okay. Friends took charge (without my asking), making coffee, answering calls and hosting visitors. I rested often, in my bedroom. Sometimes I sat on the couch and listened to the living around me.

Send cards and messages. Every card and message we received was another piece of the vast support system we desperately needed. It mattered.

Flowers are nice, and potted plants too. Beauty is welcome.

Food is a blessing. For the first week, friends and family brought food, so we didn’t have to think about making meals. It was like soul food, as well as nourishment for our bodies. It’s been three weeks, and I was so grateful for the homemade pizza I pulled out of the freezer tonight to cook for the boys. I’m still tired and when I saw it, I nearly wept with appreciation and relief.

Words from the heart mean a lot, whether they are wise or light. Words spoken in a soft way are considerate of the pain. Words that are intended to teach are aggravating to a mind that’s reeling. We don’t want advice on how to make it right.

Now that the funeral ceremony is done, and everyone has gone home, I am trying to cope with a life that has been rearranged. I want to learn how to love better than ever, so that my son’s life will not be defined by a tragedy. But I often find myself angry. And I’m certainly not in the mood for social activity. I know that my friends and family want to see me consistently happy. I’m just not there yet.

Statistics say that 80 % of couples, who lose a child end up divorced.

That scares me because my life has been all about my family, but it’s easy to see that possibility in the wake of a life crumbling.

Two loving individuals make a couple complete.

It’s hard to extend love in a state of selfish grief. I feel my body deteriorating around the condition my heart is in, which motivates me to reach for life. And I am.

Every day I make it a point to identify what’s right.

I make myself get out for a walk.

Yesterday when I was walking I cried silently for a sign that my son was somewhere, still alive. I looked down and there was an empty pack of American Spirit cigarettes. I didn’t like it that he smoked, but I recognized the brand my kid indulged in. It dawned on me that he was engaging in smoking somewhat consciously, as evidenced by his choice in a more natural product. I regretted ever criticizing that activity.

When I got back from my walk, I placed the empty pack of cigarettes next to his army hat, on my desk.

I then sat with a cup of tea, and felt inspired to turn on the T.V. A movie was showing, about a woman who lived in Africa with her teenaged son. She scolded him for keeping venomous snakes. She even grabbed his face with both hands, demanding that he look at her and listen to what she had to say. But he went his own way. In the end, he died from a snake bite.

For the first time in weeks, I felt forgiveness rise.

I am confident that I loved my son abundantly, though not always skillfully.

Sometimes I just didn’t know what to do. If I would have known then, as I do now, what deep despair is like, perhaps I would have been better at sitting with him, in the darkened spaces.

I know now that I shouldn’t have tried to fix it. I don’t believe that he benefited from unsolicited counseling and advice giving.

If I had it to do over, I would sit with him like the lady in the steam room did for me—with no expectation or urgency, just deep compassion and witnessing.

She didn’t ask anything of me, or suggest ways to be happy. She sat with my grief.


Relephant Read:

The Value of Holding Space with Another’s Grief.


Author: Chantelle Pence

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock

Photo: courtesy of the author, flickr


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Chantelle Pence