With no map to guide us

mapless desert

Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking about grief quite a lot lately. I read some posts from newcomers to an online forum for suicide survivors, and I was struck, again and again, but the inadequacy of our understanding of grief. We are not taught how to deal with it. We fear it. Of course we fear it. It is an unwanted destination, barren and harsh, and we all know we are going to have to visit it – probably more than once – during our lifetimes.

It’s not something you can plan for, grief. Not even if your loved one is sick for a long time, and you know that soon, any day now, you will be dropped into that unforgiving landscape. There is no preparing for it. I know this from experience. My grandfather died suddenly not long before my tenth birthday. It was awful. My uncle, grandmother and mother-in-law all died after long battles with cancer. That was awful too. It’s always awful, nothing can make it easier. There is no map, and even if someone tried to make one, it would be useless. That miserable landscape is different for each one of us, you see. A few months ago my therapist said to me that the grieving process mirrors the relationship. I think that’s true.

When my grandmother died, my grief was powerful but not complicated. I had a very easy and loving relationship with my grandmother. She had dementia, but my last two visits with her were magical. She knew who I was. She told me the same stories I’ve been hearing since childhood, sometimes more than once in the same ten minute span. But she smiled, and I smiled, and we held hands, and I felt the purest love for her. I still miss her, every day, but somehow the process of grieving her was filled with the songs of the birds she loved, and hints of her Irish brogue, and memories of the cookies she baked. I still cried. I still didn’t know how I would get through it.

The landscape of my grief after losing Tony is like Death Valley, or the moon. There are no plants, or animals. It is carpeted with red dust – red, the color of anger, because I have so much anger. It burns even though there is nothing there to catch fire. Nothing about grieving anyone else I had ever lost could have prepared me for what I fell into on December 21, 2012. To say there was no map feels like a gross understatement. Certainly I did not have a map. I also did not have gravity, or limbs, or bodily functions. I drifted but I was weighed down. I looked around but lacked the will to even try to move.

There was nothing anybody could have said that would have made a difference. That’s what we all fear, isn’t it? Saying the wrong thing? There really is no wrong thing. Well, okay – maybe if a completely clueless socially inept clod said something like, “I’m glad he’s dead,” that would have been wrong. I think it’s best to tread lightly around religious proclamations unless you’re sure the bereaved shares your beliefs. The simplest things are often the best. You simply cannot go wrong with “I’m so sorry.” Don’t be afraid to say it. Don’t think it’s too simple. It’s not. It’s the only thing you can say, really. And believe me, it is better – far better — than saying nothing.

Thinking about this, I wonder if it’s maybe that people want to be able to say something to make it go away. To make it all better. And of course, that’s impossible. The only way to make the grief go away is to make the dead come back to life. That’s just not an option, unless you’re going to resort to necromancy, and frankly, even if you ARE a necromancer it seems ill advised. Those stories never end well. What people who want to comfort the grieving need to know is there’s no way to make it better, or to make it go away. There is only helping the person who is in that landscape know that, while she may think she is alone, you are there too. She may not always see you, but you know she is there. You see her, you will hold her hand. That’s enough, truly.


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