The following essay first appeared in Tidewater Family Magazine in October 2016.
Our American culture doesn’t seem to know what to do with grief. Sometimes people reach out to the bereaved after a death, but as Elizabeth McCracken writes “Grief lasts longer than sympathy, which is one of the tragedies of the grieving” (80). For those of us who are bereaved, how do we navigate our grief in this fast-paced world when we want to stop and get off?
After my daughter, Mary Rose, died an hour after birth of trisomy 18, I processed my grief with therapy and art supplies. Others join grief and bereavement groups. Being with people who have gone through similar situations is comforting. They survived, and so can we.
I used a grief workbook by Mary Burgess and Shiloh Sophia McCloud called Mending Invisible Wings: Healing From the Loss of Your Baby. Through the exercises in this book which included meditations, writing and drawing exercises, I transmuted some of my pain into art. Instead of ignoring my grief or numbing it with behaviors that might not be healthy, using a sketchpad allows the bereaved to create something beautiful for our loved ones.
Many bereaved people reach out to others in their own grief. Heidi Faith created stillbirthday.com. Cubby LaHood and Nancy Mayer-Whittington co-founded Isaiah’s Promise to support other families. I started a blog and wrote a book. We can give back to this world by reaching out to others. Grief never leaves us completely. We cannot “get over” the death of a child or loved one, but we can find joy again. Spending time in nature, with my family and friends, I pause and notice the beauty around me.
And for those of us who know people who are suffering in grief, let us offer kind support. We do not know what to say, so many of us say nothing. If we are to be communities that support each other, we must nurture the bereaved. I have a few suggestions:
- Remember the loss. Write an email or send a note saying that you remember the person who died. Consider special anniversaries, holidays and birthdays. My sister gave me a Christmas card telling me that she made a donation in memory of Mary Rose on that first holiday without her. This meant so much.
- Say less. Don’t repeat platitudes such as “Time heals all wounds” (it does not) or “Be grateful for what you have.” A person who is grieving is not ungrateful. She has a broken heart. Instead of thinking in terms of one or the other (gratitude or grief) consider that the bereaved are both grateful for their blessings and mournful for their losses. The most comforting words spoken to me were “I don’t know what you are going through, but I am here for you.” Be honest. Speak from your heart. :Less is more. “I don’t know what to say,” is appropriate. It is your presence that matters most.
- Make small thoughtful gestures. Invite the bereaved for a cup of tea or a quiet walk. Stop by with a pot of soup or a book or plant. A quick email or text saying “I am thinking of you” weeks and months later means a lot.
In the aftermath of my own grief I realize that we have work to do to build our communities. It is my hope that together we can share our grief and our joys as we move forward after the tragedies that come to the living. I grieve, yet I love. I cry, but I laugh again. I hope that you will join me in reaching out to others and spreading love during the most difficult of circumstances.
McCracken, Elizabeth. An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination. New York, NY: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2010. Print.