What Do You Do When Someone Loses Someone They Love?
I recently gathered with family to mourn the passing of my uncle, Father Frank. Standing in the midst of so many others who were also grieving, I thought sadly: We are like sheep without a shepherd.
It is hard to be there, in that space, but harder still in the hours and days leading up to the first visit to the home or the wake; before you join the others. And always, the question; what do you do, what do you say in the face of such loss?
In the past, I did all the wrong things, said all the wrong things. I wanted to help as if helping were possible.
Life is teaching me how to deal with death. When my father lost his first brother many years ago, it seemed only a minute after Dad came home with the news that Mom and Dad’s closest friends arrived. They just got into their car and came. That’s how I learned to form my first response to the news of death; go.
When my mother died, I remember looking into the room where my children and their cousins were working on a jigsaw puzzle. I noticed my cousin’s son was also at the table. I could see and feel how upset he was as he intently worked with his cousins to connect the pieces. Of all the events of that surreal time, this was the image that stayed with me. He was only seventeen years old yet he was willing to stay in the room, the hardest thing to do.
When my son Alex died, the son of a cousin, who I barely knew, sat in the back seat of his parents’ car for six hours to come to the funeral only to turn around and drive back later that day. I don’t recall exchanging any words with him during those hours, but I remember looking across the kitchen and seeing him standing at the back of the crowd; willing to just be there in the presence of unthinkable pain.
The most vivid example of compassion in the face of loss happened during that horrible first week of life without Alex. My good friend stayed near me, taking care of the visitors who’d come to our home, but discretely focusing on me. When I said I was going to take a nap she followed me to a little room downstairs that contained a bed in an alcove, a rocking chair, and a footstool. After I curled up on the bed she took the squat, small footstool and placed it against the wall next to the alcove. With her back to me and facing the door, she sat on that stool and kept a vigil for me while I slept.
We live and we learn. We learn from the knee-jerk response we give and later regret. We learn from the things we wish we’d done but didn’t have the courage to do at the time. And we learn from the caring actions that no one can teach, actions that spring from a caring and empathetic heart.
What do you do when a loved one loses someone they love? What has life taught you so far?