The Presence of Absence
For many folks, December means peppermint treats, Christmas carols, lights, presents, family and fun. For me this is all still true, but in December I also spend a lot of time thinking about my Dad. I think about the years growing up when he would videotape us opening our presents and ask us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I think about the Dr. Demento Christmas album he played every year that would become what my sister and I still consider Christmas “classics,” about how he would dance around the kitchen, play the piano, and shake every gift before he opened it (routinely speculating tennis balls were inside). I think about New Year's Eves when he would take us outside to bang pots and pans and clang cowbells to ring in the next year. I think about the Christmas 2012 when he had just been diagnosed with brain cancer. All of these things happened as usual, but in the back of each of our heads we wondered if it would be the last time. I think of December 2013 when we gathered around his hospital bed and sang songs from Dr. Demento’s Christmas album while he was extubated and were unsure if he would be able to breathe on his own. I think about the Christmas that came a few days later, and the unopened presents that sat below his bed while he lie in a deep sleep accompanied by our loyal dog. I think about December 30th, 2013, when we kissed his forehead one last time and said goodbye to his physical presence forever. I think about the next night when we went outside at midnight and banged pots and rang cowbells in his honor.
For many folks, the holidays are a time of mixed emotions. And for those who have lost a loved one, it can be tough. We are aware of this and yet addressing it with friends and family can be uncomfortable because we just don’t know what to say. The same is true right after a person dies. Saying things like “condolences,” and “I’m so sorry for your loss” seem trite and unhelpful. Many of us get so caught up trying to figure out the best thing to say that we often end up saying nothing at all. So what can we do? I used to struggle with this, and still do, but now that I’ve been on receiving side I have some new ideas.
To best understand what one can say, though, I think it is beneficial to first explore grief itself. The dictionary definition is “deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death.” But understanding grief requires digging into the roots of that deep sorrow, which are complex. From my experience and discussions I’ve had, I can identify four main roots: questioning, sadness for the person who died, sadness for other grieving, and the presence of their absence. (Though I’m not speaking here directly about the well-known "Stages of Grief," that framework is also helpful to understand and it should be noted those were never meant to be read as linear steps ).
Questioning. In many or most instances of a person’s death, there were many moving parts whose aftermath can leave us in a sea of questions. Most notably, what could I have done differently? Could I have saved him? What if we had tried x, y, or z? Could I have better spent our time together? Did I tell her I loved her enough? Did I honor his wishes? This process coincides with the Five Stages of Grief's bargaining state. Kübler-Ross & Kessler write,
We become lost in a maze of 'If only...' or 'What if…' statements...We want to go back in time: find the tumor sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening…if only, if only, if only. Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. The 'if onlys' cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we think we could have done differently."
Sadness for the person who died. My dad sent an email before his surgery to have some his tumor removed. In it he reviewed what he saw as all possible outcomes, the final of which was death. He reflected, “And if it is the last, I am very sad to miss the rest of life.” This thought is so straightforward and unprofound, and yet every time I think of it, tears well in my eyes. Thinking of my Dad contemplating the life he thought he would have and will now miss breaks my heart. Remembering him, 14 months later, not wanting the goodbyes to be goodbyes as people visited him for the last time, breaks my heart all over again. There is great sadness for for hard things experienced as well as good things missed.
Sadness for others who are grieving. While grieving my dad’s death, I also spent much time being sad for my mom, and everyone else in my dad’s life who would be missing him. This one is simple, but significant. Seeing people you love experience sorrow hurts.
The presence of their absence. Obviously, a big aspect of grief is missing the person who has passed. But there is a feeling deeper than just missing them, it is the often-felt existence of their not-being-there-ness. I went to a funeral this year during which someone shared a thought that after you lose a loved one, that person is gone, but a new version of the person, their absence, is there with you. This presence of absence is felt in so many ways. In a tribute to his mother after her death, Stephen Colbert said, ”I know that it may sound greedy to want more days with a person who lived so long. But the fact that my mother was 92 does not diminish, it only magnifies, the enormity of the room whose door has now quietly shut.” Colbert’s description speaks to the vast absence that will be present in his life. For me, my dad’s absence will be present this Christmas morning, and on every Christmas morning ahead. His absence will be present at weddings, family game nights, quiet walks along the coast, in the good times and the hard times.
There are so many smaller facets of this large loss of presence- the feeling of loneliness, the loss of guidance, and the loss of what one person brought out in another. About this last one, C.S. Lewis once reflected after the death of a friend,
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald…"
Thus far I have been speaking in terms of “roots”, but I also see grief visualized as a multi-axised graph, like with spokes of a wheel. The extent to which each of these feelings is experienced raises and lowers that point on the spoke, creating a unique shape that maps an individual's grief. The circumstances of the loved ones death, the time passed, and the griever’s relationship to the deceased greatly affect how these facets of grief manifest. This is what makes finding the right thing to say so hard; we have no way of knowing how to address all of these variables. For a start, though, I have some ideas of what not to say:
What Not to Say
“I know exactly how you feel”. First, remember that everyone’s grief maps are different. And secondly, if you’ve truly been through a similar experience, you know that’s rarely a comforting statement to hear. It usually seems to diminish or simplify a person’s experience, transition the focus away from the one you’re trying to comfort, and/or curb the further conversation of actually trying to understand what the other is feeling.
What could have been done differently. When an huge part of grief work is pulling oneself out of the “what if” pit, it is usually counterproductive to lead someone deeper into this hole. A good mantra for a griever is “I did the best I could with the information I had at the time.” Help drive this mantra rather than stirring up more questions.
“At least…” In her Ted Talk talk about vulnerability, Brene Brown eloquently states, “rarely if ever, does an empathic response begin with ‘at least’” This applies to all of life’s struggles, but especially loss. People have said to my family “at least you had 30 good years with him,” “at least you got to say goodbye,” and “at least he wasn’t in pain…” These things are all so true and I am incredibly grateful for each of them, but they did not negate my grief. Allow the person grieving to arrive at these realizations on his or her own. Having some one else point them out feels dismissive.
Nothing. All that being said, don't be so afraid of saying the "wrong" thing that you say nothing at all. A few days after my dad died, I ran into a longtime family friend. When I passed him in a parking lot we stopped to chat and had the most meaningless conversation about who-knows-what. Never in my life has there been an elephant so large in the room. I don’t harbor any bad feelings for this person, as I know he just didn’t know what to say. But it did make me very aware my own tendency to do the same in the past and realize how much I wanted to change that. Even if one of the previous three things comes out, showing up and saying something are still better than nothing at all.
Ideas of What to Say and Do
All this in mind, what is there to say? Even though we have no idea what kind of unique grief map a person carries on his or her heart, and our relationship to the person grieving affects the approach, here are some ideas to start:
Say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” I know I said this was trite and made it seem like I might have a new and improved idea of what to say, but this is it. The problem with this quandary of finding the right thing to say isn't the answer, it's the question. We’re hoping for a perfect statement that will make things better and that just does not exist. Cheryl Strayed says it better than I ever could (in a beautiful advice column post, The Black Arc of It, which is worth the additional read):
Get comfortable being the man who says 'oh honey, I’m so sorry for your loss' over and over again. That’s what the people who’ve consoled me the most deeply in my sorrow have done. They’ve spoken those words or something like them every time I needed to hear it; they’ve plainly acknowledged what is invisible to them, but so very real to me. I know saying those cliché and ordinary things makes you feel squirmy and lame. I feel that way too when I say such things to others who have lost someone they loved. We all do. It feels lame because we like to think we can solve things. It feels insufficient because there is nothing we can actually do to change what’s horribly true. But compassion isn’t about solutions. It’s about giving all the love that you’ve got.”
Listen, Ask, Connect. Try not to assume, talk, fix, improve. Listen to understand where the person is at and connect with them there. Brene Brown echoes Strayed's sentiment when she says, “rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” Ask how they are feeling. Ask what you can do. Don’t assume that a smile, laugh or good day means they are “better.” Listen for the roots of their sorrow, whether it be one I share here or one of the many I have undoubtedly left unidentified. Ask them to tell you about their loved one. I've been so grateful over the past few years for friends who have lent an ear and allowed me to share memories about my dad, and for those who have shared their own stories of him with me.
Remember. One of the hardest parts of grieving is when the rest of the world seems to move on while you’re still grieving. Recognize that grief is a long process and have patience with the griever. Continue to check in with them for months and years to come. Write a note in your calendar to remind yourself to send them a card on the anniversary of the person’s death. Recognize that it may never be “okay” that the person they lost is gone. The authors behind the five stages of grief express that this is aspect of “acceptance” explaining, “Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being ‘all right’ or ‘OK’ with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one.” In that light, be okay with them not being okay.
And when the holidays come around, remember that those who lost a loved one will have an absence present at their table. Acknowledge that in some way. Know that the joy they feel this (and every) month does not happen in spite of their loss, but rather is drawn from a well that was carved by sorrow. At Wellness Within we are all too aware of many families who are spending a holiday without a loved one, and we are thinking of you.
© Sarah Dillon