L’Absinthe by Edgar Degas
I was thumbing through the journal I kept during the hospice years and came across this entry: [Identifiers have been changed BTW.]
“Gertie was visibly shaken yesterday. Her mom’s youngest brother, aged 94, died this past weekend and, as she stared down at the coffee table she told me, “I’m afraid she’ll go now, too. She’s the last one you know.” Grammy’s appetite has been off and Gertie doesn’t think she’s eating enough to survive.
All the other times when Grammy was going through one of her diminished-appetite spells, Gertie would worry and I would try to gently explain that loss of appetite is natural toward the end. But she always acknowledged and dismissed the fact simultaneously.
The truth is she’s just not ready to lose her mom and I’m now beginning to suspect she never will be. Watching her yesterday—the way she stared off into nothingness as she spoke, eyes turned inward, searching and frightened—I wondered how long she’ll survive herself, once her mother is gone. I even wondered if she’d go first. [Gertie was 83 at the time.] For such a strong, stubborn, tenacious woman she is remarkably fragile underneath it all.
And quite ill herself.
So yesterday I said nothing. Didn’t ask her, “Are you ready for this?” Or say, “You know Gertie, she may be getting ready to go now.” Of course she knows. Shock is already starting to creep in, an early mist rising to help shield her from the unbearable loss lying just ahead. Instead I just sat there, as still as I could. Quiet. Listening. Trying to catch and contain as many of her scattering pieces as I could.
I didn’t want to move or breathe or do anything to disturb the tendrils of mist gathering around her. She is so achingly delicate.”
As I read it all came back to me in a rush; how grieving people (and those who are catastrophically ill or dying) are sacred. The wounding and shock caused by any kind of profound loss makes a person vulnerable; and a society’s traditional job is to close ranks around them, shielding them until they have a chance to stop reeling and reorient. To get through the worst of it and find their footing again.
In older times this understanding of the sacredness of those in deep grief was fairly common, but I think we may have grown a little fuzzy about it since then.
Although…I do think most people still feel this sacredness instinctively. I often see it in the awkward pause that happens after someone confides they’ve lost a loved one, or that they have a catastrophic illness. The person receiving the news is usually aware that something huge just fell out of the sky right in front of them, but they frequently appear confused as to what they’re supposed to do about it.
So even though I frequently fail to follow these myself (they’re appropriate…not easy) here are a few of the Do’s and Don’ts about how to interact with a person who, through no fault of their own, has become temporarily sacred:
1) Do no harm. The disorientation of the deeply wounded is the emotional equivalent of a compromised immune system. Even if they try joking about it or brushing it off as embarrassing, remember that their shields have taken a hit and are not functioning properly. Be gentler, be kinder, be slower, be quieter.
2) Do acknowledge their wounding. Go ahead and be silent for a moment, then look at them (really look at them…don’t shuffle your feet and look at anything else but) and say I’m sorry. Then be quiet again. That’s it. This is the traditional ceremonial acknowledgement of wounding in our culture and, when genuine, it’s enough. Even if it’s been years since their loss took place, it’s still okay to say this. You’d be amazed how long some wounds can last.
3) Do follow their lead. If they feel like talking about it and you have time, then listen. (Listening is actually one of the greatest gifts you can give. People usually need to tell the story of what happened, or is happening, multiple times in order to coax events out of the weird, limbo world of shock and back into practical reality where they can harness and deal with it.)
On the other hand, if they don’t want to talk about it, then it’s okay to let it go. They don’t have to.
And if, as is often the case, they don’t know what to say and stumble around awkwardly searching for words, then just be quiet and patient while they figure it out. Let them know you’re fine with awkward. Wounded people are bewildered and need extra time. Giving it to them willingly is like encircling them with a protective charm.
Which leads us to the final Do:
4) Do be willing to be silent. Sometimes words just aren’t big enough and, in that case, compassionate silence says everything necessary.
Then there are The DON’Ts:
1) Don’t give advice unless specifically asked. Everyone has to find their own way through this one.
2) Don’t abandon or ignore them. Even if you feel awkward or uncertain yourself, being willing to stay anyway is worth it’s weight in gold. Wounded people already feel a little disembodied and unconnected. Ignoring them could make this experience chronic or permanent.
3) But Don’t rub their noses in it either. Everyone grapples with grief and loss differently and if they prefer to deal with their emotions privately, then respect their ability to know what they need most.
4) And finally, Don’t try to save them from their task. You can’t…and it’s not necessary anyway. Wounded people are vulnerable, not incompetent. Believe in them. The journey of illness and loss is hard but it can be strangely deepening, too, and those who navigate it with courage and grace enrich us all. It’s more than worth our while to give them whatever help they need.
copyright Dia Osborn 2011