Tag Archives: suffering

What to say when someone dies

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No one really knows what to say to someone when their loved one dies.  You can say, “You’re in my thoughts and prayers,” and maybe that’s true.  Maybe you actually know what to think or pray on that person’s behalf.  Personally, I’m never sure. 

You can tell them that you’ll be there for them—that you’re their middle-of-the-night-phone-call friend, and promise to sleep with the phone near your bed.  You can write them a With Sympathy card and let Hallmark say something in lofty cursive and sign your name with love.  Or make a digital card with organ music to have a more flashy effect.  You can go to the funeral and wake and talk about all the good memories of their loved one, memorialize them with a slide show, give a toast, even ease the pain with some good jokes. 

You can bring them soup.  Bone soup, if you’ve been there.  If you know how hard it is to eat when you are in emotional triage.  It gets physical fast.  And every bite needs to hold health.

You can use social media to show support, post by post.  But do you “Like” an announcement of death?  Do you “Share” it?  Do you “Comment?”  It’s all a way of observing your friend’s loss.  But in the same place you share about what you ate for breakfast? 

You can give them books:  A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, in which the minister rages against the loss of his beloved wife, himself, his God, and Who Dies, by Stephen Levine, especially Chapter 8, where he goes deeply into Grief as an ultimate vehicle of liberation, saying, “We are dropped into the very pit of despair and longing…an initiation often encountered along the fierce journey toward freedom, spoken of in the biographies of many saints and sages.”  But most people are not open to that journey in the first place, and certainly not when their hearts are shattered into splintered shards.

The truth is, and it hurts in the worst way…that ultimately, the mourner will be alone in their grief, and who wants to say that?  Who wants to bear the news that soon…people will stop Thinking, and Praying, and Liking, and Sharing, and Commenting, and bringing soup, and sending cards and emails and books.  Even the phone calls and texts will fall away.  The unspoken reality is:  People go back to their lives and you are alone.  You are in a club that you never wanted to be in.  And that’s when you watch Renee Fleming singing “Walk On” over and over on youtube as loud as you can.  And eventually…you do.  You absorb the grief.  And you start to see the “golden sky” she’s singing about.  But you never get over your loss.  Never.222

There is the opportunity, however, to use it.  If you’re in the club, you might as well be a steady and gracious club member.  I’m in the club.  And recently, one of my dear friend’s beloved husband dropped dead out of nowhere.  She’d lost her grandparents in their old age.  No one else.  She was bereft.  She asked me to write her a list of things that would help her, based on a phone call we’d shared.  Her mind was in a triage fog, my words were helpful to her, and she wanted to remember them. 

Here is what I wrote.  I offer it to you, if you are a new member of this club.  You are not alone.  And I offer it to you if you are one of those people wondering what to Think, Pray, Say…do: 

Hello, beautiful.  I am thinking of you non-stop.  Thank you for calling on me to be in your circle at this impossible time.  I am not afraid of this, so I’m glad you called me in.  I will be there for you.  The books you asked for should be there by the end of the week.  I will write some of the points I made on the phone here, since you asked for them.  If my words on the phone were helpful, it’s only because you are open to them.  I truly hope they help.  Here is what has helped me and some of the people I know who have been through deep loss: 

  • First of all:  Breathe.  I mean it.  That’s your most important tool to stay in the present, out of fear, and to sustain yourself.  You will find yourself holding your breath.  Try to stay aware of your breath no matter what and keep breathing…in…out…in…out.  Deeply if you can.  Little sips when deep is too hard.
  • Lean into Love.  Wherever you can find it.  In your God.  In friends and family.  In yourself.  Let it hold you for now.  Call on friends and family to give you what you need.  You cannot offend anyone right now.  Let us know what you need and tell us how to give it to you.  “Bring me dinner, please.  Come sit with me.  Read to me.  Sing to me.  Rub my back.  Draw me a bath…” 
  • That said, be careful who you bring into your circle.  Stay away from people who say things like, “He’s in a better place,” or “Everything happens for a reason.”  They’re trying to help, and maybe those things are true, but right now you need people who are not afraid to hold the space for your pain.  You need to find the people who feel easy and safe and not necessarily wise.  Keep your circle small for now.  It might be that you call on people very different from the ones you habitually have in your life.
  • Make sure to eat.  Even if you want to throw up.  Please, eat.  And drink a lot of water.  You don’t want to block your natural energy flow.  Your body actually knows how to handle this immense pain.
  • Lie in bed with your feet up. 
  • Take a walk if you can, every day.  Even if it’s short.  Just get outside.
  • Take Epsom Salt baths.  Lavender oil helps.  Keep some in your purse, put a few drops on your palm, rub your hands together, then cup your hands to your nose and breathe deeply when you need grounding.
  • Write.  If you can.  Just a little bit.  If you have it in you, at some point sooner than later, it’s incredibly useful to write down your vision of what was “supposed to be.”  I heard those words come from your deepest place of sacred rage and I believe that to write that story, as fully fleshed out as possible, would be an important step in one day sending off that “supposed to be” into the sea of surrender.  So that you don’t have to hold it anymore and you can live into your future.  Letting the supposed-to-be go doesn’t mean that you do it injustice or that it no longer exists in dreams and heart.  But it’s important not to have it become armor of some sort.  It’s not time now to surrender it.  But I do believe that it would be helpful just to write it out with great details as a way to honor it.  And one day…yes, to let it go.  Writing is the most transformational and therapeutic tool I know and I think it should be up there with diet and exercise in the realm of wellness.  Keep a journal by your bed.  It helps.
  • When the terrifying, claustrophobic, impossible thoughts come, do not let them multiply.  Literally put up a wall that keeps them on the other side.  They are not your friend.  There is no making sense of this loss.  Unless your thoughts are loving and forgiving and helpful, banish them.  If you have to shout “NO!” then do it.  What you let into your mind should feel and act like the very best friends and family who would never let you entertain fear, but only shower you with love.  Love yourself.  There is no thinking your way through this.  This is a time to really find what it is to just…be.  Breathe.  Breathe.  Breathe.  In out in out.
  • There is no check list right now.  There is nowhere to get.  There is no goal other than to fully live in the present moment.  You can’t skip steps with triage, grief, or healing.  Grief attacks at will, it seems.  Be gentle with yourself if you feel graceless around it.  You have to feel it to shed it.
  • Go slowly.  Be careful.  The only real wisdom I have gleaned from Grief is this:  Grief is one of our greatest teachers because it doesn’t allow for hiding places.  When we open to our sorrow, we find truth.   Your tears then, are truth.  Honor them.

That’s enough for now.  The main thing is to be gentle with yourself.  I love you so.  And the love you two shared will never ever go away.  He is Love now and he is all around you and in you.  If you can’t feel him, feel Love and you will be feeling him.

Hope that helps.  You can do this.  I am here for you.  I promise.  If only just to listen to your tears and let you know you are not alone.

Love, 

Laura

In honor of Dr. Nick Gonzalez 

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Not Another Coffee Table Book. Munch.

I love this book. I am drawn to books about artists. I want to know how other people, whether they were painters or sculptors or writers, lived the solitary life. Some did it in suffering. Some did not. Munch suffered. I’d like to see the paradigm of the tortured artist shift; to see more artists find freedom in their expression rather than having it beget more pain. It begs the question: does art have to come from pain in the first place? Can’t it come out of love and celebration and receiving the beauty of creation? I do not have the answer and there doesn’t need to be one. I only know that I am better for reading books like this which so deeply bring me along the empathic journey of a man’s passion for his art. With so many stacks of books in my office and nightstand and living room, I find that I need books with visuals. To move out of words and into images. This book is a perfect balance of both. It gives visuals as it gives wisdom. It’s not a coffee table book. It is the work of an art historian who, like certain doctors, has not detatched, but rather has moved further into her subject, if you will. When it comes to art historians, I want them to show me and then tell me what they know, in a language I can understand, as a result of all their years of passion in their field yes, but also as the humans that they are. Thanks to Jay Clarke, I feel like I know Munch now. I have had this book next to my writing desk for the last year. I refer to it often. It helps me to know the heart language of this man, behind his art. And in-so-doing, it helps me to know my own work that much better. It has me ask the question of art and suffering and freedom. We are all better for this sort of intuitive view that Jay Clarke has widened her art historian’s eye to see.

Dr. Jay Clarke is the Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Clark Museum, Williamstown, MA

Maybe you saw the fabulous exhibit which debuted at Chicago’s Art Institute in 2009 and which Ms. Clarke curated. Here is a rave review and very interesting article in The New York Times.

Excerpt: CHICAGO — Society tends to prefer creative types who neatly fit the pigeonhole labeled Other. The artist as solitary, tormented, possibly insane genius is among the most durable staples of the modern imagination. It is also comforting. That’s not me, you can tell yourself. I may not be creative, but at least I’m not crazy.

The modern foundation of this stereotype lies with Vincent van Gogh, but no one gave it more definition than the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944). It is the ambition of “Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety and Myth,” a thrilling exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, to upend or at least balance Munch’s famous persona, which he himself helped shape, with a more realistic portrayal. Munch’s well-known suffering began with a childhood scarred by poverty and the deaths from tuberculosis of his mother and a beloved sister, Sophie; was made harsher by the religious fervor of a stern father; and was mitigated by precocious talent and the encouragement of a loving aunt. There followed early and repeated disappointments in love; recurring illness of several varieties; debilitating melancholia and bouts of paranoia; another sister committed to a mental asylum. His alcoholism didn’t help. Perhaps fittingly Munch’s most emblematic image, “The Scream,” with its hallucinatory sky and shrieking button face, was vandalized early on with delicately scrawled graffiti that reads in Norwegian, “Could only have been painted by a madman.”
Read more at The New York Times

Click here to read an illuminating interview with Jay Clarke.

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