I recently received a call from a friend telling me that her husband died the day before. For the past year, I knew something was going on with her husband but she never shared the details with me and I didn’t feel it was my place to ask. I was shocked as I listened to her tell me the tragic news. In fact, I was in the car when she called me and I immediately pulled over to the side of the road.
A rush of mental images of her and her husband and being in the hospital went through my head and I started crying. I recognized the flatness in her voice, reflecting the shock, exhaustion and confusion that she was dealing with. I was picturing what she went through as she talked to me but I also was back with my husband the day that he died. I knew there was nothing I could say that would take away her pain. I could only sympathetically offer, “I’m so sorry. I had no idea that he was so sick.”
She doesn’t live near me so I couldn’t go to her house. I don’t see her as much as I would like but we try to stay in regular contact. When I saw her number on my cell phone screen I thought it was unusual for her to call me on a weekend morning but I didn’t instantly think of bad news. That said, I hadn’t talked to her in awhile because the last couple of times we talked on the phone she would allude to her husband’s medical issues but wouldn’t go into details. I knew she was trying to handle a stressful situation but I also knew she was telling me she needed her privacy.
While I find talking to be therapeutic, I do recognize that a lot of people don’t feel this way. Not everyone wants to talk on and on about what is happening to them, their spouse or their child. For others, talking can be emotionally exhausting and it doesn’t solve anything or get them anywhere.
You might think that because I experienced the death of my husband that I would know exactly what to say to my friend and that I would immediately have a plan to offer that would make her feel better. Not true. She just lost her husband, the person she loved more than anything else in the whole world; the person she built a family with and loved for decades. While I immediately felt the loss of a generous friend; the loss for her is so much more.
The circumstances of each person’s death are truly unique. I cannot say to another person that because I felt a certain way that I know they will feel that way too. Grief is different for each person and it’s an unpredictable process. Her whole world has been shaken up and she needs time to adjust to these major changes. How much time? It’s hard to know because there is no set schedule.
Many people, including myself, feel that grief comes and goes in waves. You think you are all right, you have yourself and your feelings under control and then bam, out of the blue, something triggers those feelings of loss and you are back in a place you didn’t expect. You could be in a car, the grocery store, at work or in a restaurant. It could be a smell, a song, a person or a place. You just never know. I have heard some people say that they feel the worst part of their grief came early in the process and other people found that the most difficult times came months or even years later.
There is really no way to tell someone else who is grieving how they will feel in six days, six weeks or even six months after the death of a loved one. Eventually you do start to heal but only the person going through bereavement can know how much they can handle.
I find it’s helpful to let the person who is grieving set the pace of your conversation. No matter how scared you are when you are talking to a person who is grieving, you should always treat them with dignity and kindness. And listen. Listen, listen, listen. And then listen some more.
The person who is grieving is trying to make sense out of what is happening to them and it is not a logical process. Sometimes a person may need to repeat the details of their loved one’s death over and over. This is their way of healing. Listening is a special gift and you have the opportunity to give it to someone who really wants it.