By Rabbi Julie Wolkoff. D.Min., CT
I thought I knew about grief. I’m a hospice chaplain and have been one for 6 years. I teach in-service programs on grief and grieving. I counsel people and follow them for bereavement support after a loss. I’ve led support groups and developed resource lists for mourners. I won’t recommend a book I haven’t read, so my bookshelves contain over 60 books on loss, grief, and bereavement.
In the past five months, following the death of my husband, I have come to realize that while I know a lot about grief and loss, there was just as much that I didn’t know. Here is some of what I have learned about grief and loss.
“Let people help you.”
One of my dearest friends told me this soon after my loss. My job is helping people. It is difficult to suddenly be the one in need of help. Some days it is difficult to even know the help to ask for. But I have learned that my friend was right. People are eager to help and it helps me to have their help. I have had friends help clean and sort my kitchen cupboards, hang new blinds, and feed me. Friends and family have given me the names of professionals to provide some of the services I have needed, and helped me revamp my wardrobe. Yesterday the man tuning up my furnace not only patiently explained the working parts to me (while Bob’s voice echoed in my head: “You’ve lived here how long and you still don’t know how the furnace works?”) but also helped me change the back door screen to the winter glass panel.
Much to my surprise, I have found help in the places that I least expected it. Staff members at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, Town Hall, the Registry of Deeds, pension funds, account services, billing departments, and banks have been nothing short of wonderful. They have been sympathetic and calm. The forms and questions that are novel, complicated, and mysterious to me are forms and questions that they have dealt with countless times. They have experience dealing with grieving people (and, perhaps, don’t want people crying at their counters lest others present think they are the cause of the tears.)
There are things that bereaved people will only discuss with other bereaved people because we don’t want you to think we’re crazy.
Everyone I know who works in hospice has stories of patients speaking with people we couldn’t see but who were very present to the patient. We’ve seen people reach up just before they die or call out “help me up.” I was with a family once and as they were telling me stories about my patient, a fan crashed to the floor on the other side of the room. We all turned to look at the source of the noise. When we turned back, their loved one was gone. A family member touched his chest and called his name and just as suddenly he was back. He died a short time later, after his family had left. I know that the falling fan was to distract us so his soul could leave. I still am not fully positive if his soul returned in response to the touch or if his body just started back up because it didn’t realize the soul was gone.
I have no problem sharing this story. I’m not concerned about whether or not those I share it with believe me. A disbelieving response doesn’t change who I am or what I know or what I experienced; it has no effect on my skills as a chaplain. However, the response of the “bereaved me” is very different from the response of the “professional me.” The bereaved me is not prepared to deal with skepticism or with people deciding I’m crazy or delusional or in need of therapeutic help.
I know that there are things that people who have lost a spouse or partner will only share in conversation with others who have lost a spouse or partner. And I believe this is also true for bereaved parents or siblings. We share them with others who share our experience. We might share in a bereavement group if we feel safe enough. We might share them with our closest friends and family, or we might not do so.
What you can do to help those who are bereaved.
Both personally and professionally, I know it can be extraordinarily helpful if clergy or support group leaders bring up issues such as dreaming of the person who died or hearing his or her voice. Because, really, there are times when we who are bereaved do think we are, or might be, crazy. We’re not going to bring it up; we’re just trying to get through today and maybe tomorrow. Anything you can do to help normalize our grief helps us understand that our reactions are normal; that we’re not crazy, we’re grief-stricken.
You can offer help. Not the general (and useless) “If there’s anything I can do, please let me know.” Trust me, we don’t know the answer to that, at least not at first. On the other hand, useful offers may include: “May I bring you dinner?” “May I pick up something for you when I go to the bakery?” “Do you need someone to drive your children to . . . (“school,” “Hebrew school,” “soccer.”) “Here’s the name of someone I know who is a good . . . (“lawyer,” “handyman,” “snow-removal service,” “organizer”) for when you are ready.” “I’m available if you want someone to help you go through . . .(“his / her clothes,” “the files,” “the attic.”)
And it’s never too late to call or write. You feel badly because you didn’t get around to sending a card? It is as valued, if not more so, three or six months or a year later when every mail delivery doesn’t bring a slew of notes. It may be a better time to talk after a few months when the bereaved person isn’t being pulled in a million immediate directions and the calls may have dropped off. As we continue to move through and process our losses, we need friends as sounding boards, as supportive listeners, and as continued presences in our lives.
Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min., CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and a past co-president of the WRN. Find her blogging her way through grief at: http://fabricfiber.wordpress.com/