How do we speak of grief when it is so personal? Why do we have a tendency to judge the level or appropriateness of one’s sadness? Each of us will face loss and death, either our own or that of a loved one. Our feelings and the way we express them are the result of multitudes of lessons we have learned. We cope in so many different ways and yet we find ourselves wondering why there are so many different approaches to tragedy.
My mother was quite strong but the deaths of loved ones revealed a crack in her outward facade that was almost disturbing. She allowed her emotions to have free range. She would take to her bed and cry in convulsive fits. She became unable to perform even the simplest tasks. Because of the extreme nature of her reactions I found myself in a state of forced control whenever our family endured an horrific situation. I maintained a fake coolness and appeared to be seemingly detached. It was an act and I’m not certain that it was the proper way to be but it became my way of coping.
I have watched people at funerals and noticed just how quirky each of us becomes whenever we have to endure the anguish that overtakes us at such times. Few people know how to properly deal with the misery of such situations. Those who do are a blessing. They say the right things and seem to know when to cry and when to smile. They are normal and natural and comfortable to be around. Most of us falter. We sense that the public has certain expectations for us but we simply do not know how to be. We are awkward with our feelings and our comments and wish that we might express ourselves with a brilliance that allows people to understand the essence of our souls.
A former student from the high school where I last worked lost her mother to cancer just before she was to graduate from college. She was quite close to her mom and they had both dreamed of the day when she would earn her degree. Having to walk across the stage when everyone surrounding her was in such a festive mood became more like a nightmare for her. In her heart she knew that her dear sweet mama should have been there to watch the triumph but instead she was forever gone. Every step that she took and every smile that she made on that day was little more than her effort to keep herself together when what she really wanted to do was rage against the unfairness of her loss. Of late she has been able to channel the enormity of her feelings by writing blogs designed to reveal her heartbreaking journey and to discuss the complexities of grief. Her hope is that by honestly discussing her emotions she will somehow help others who will most certainly find a time when they must deal with the loss of those that they love.
Not everyone is so willing to open their hearts. Most of us have masks that we use to hide the hurt and misery that stalks us. I am personally quite guilty of such behavior. I often pretend to be just fine when I am instead feeling quite low. I suspect that most people don’t really want a totally honest assessment of my emotional status and so I mostly smile to make them feel reassured. I only provide a truthful appraisal of my hurt and disappointment to those whom I most trust. I suppose that most of us are like that. We have one persona for home and another for public display.
Somehow there has to be a delicate balance between abject agony and stalwart stoicism. There also must be understanding. It really is not up to any of us to judge another for their despair or seeming lack of it. Unless we are close enough to them to truly know the content of their hearts we never realize exactly what they are thinking or feeling. Our only job should be to support them however they choose to be.
Long ago one of the teachers at my school was killed in a car accident. She was a delightful soul who was beloved by all. Those of us who worked with her attended her funeral in a state of shock and discomfort. Her mother was calm and gracious, attending more to our needs than to her own. I accidentally wondered allowed how she was able to maintain her composure under such circumstances and she laughingly told me that she was filled with so much medication that she could hardly feel her feet much less the pain that had ripped a crater open in her heart. When a lone tear ran down her cheek I saw the devastation in her eyes for the first time and we just stood holding hands until she was able to regain her composure and move to the next guest who had come to honor her daughter.
I have a dear friend who worked with me for many years. When my mother died she reacted in the most appropriate and loving ways. She came to the visitation and kept her remarks quite simple, telling me how much she loved me and how sorry she was. A week or so after the funeral she sent me a lovely plant that almost six years later continues to grow and flourish as a symbol of her kindness. Not too long after that she wrote a beautiful letter to me, reminding me of beautiful moments when I had shared stories about my mom. She kept in touch just to be sure that I was doing okay long after everyone had gone back to their normal lives. She took a few moments here and there to let me know that she understood that my pain was not yet healed. I will always love her for her insightful attention and ability the see through my attempts to appear strong.
Someone that you know may be suffering and not even showing the signs. Particularly during the holiday season we should each take the time to find that person who is unable to be merry because of illness, disappointment or loss. It takes very little to provide a bit of comfort, a funny card, a quick phone call, a bouquet of flowers, a visit. Those small gestures really do make a difference.
My daughter and I were feeling pensive this Thanksgiving. One of my cousins died just before the big day of feasting. Another cousin is battling lymphoma. All of my surviving aunts are well into their nineties and experiencing major health problems. We spoke of how fragile life is and the changes that are inevitable for all of us. We commented that during our most difficult times we are often quite surprised to learn who truly cares. There always seems to be someone who unexpectedly steps forward to provide us with exactly the tonic that we need to begin to heal. Perhaps each of us should find someone for whom we might offer solace in the midst of the rush to celebrate the season. There is no better gift and it need not cost a thing. Someone is hoping for your gentle touch.