April 2, 2014

Limbo Loss: How to Help.

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Warning: naughty language ahead! 

With neither intention nor preparation, I have becomea professional griever.

Nineteen months ago my mother died, and now my father is dying. It’s a matter of months, maybe enough months that the lilacs will be out and maybe enough that the leaves will have started to turn.

There is no knowing and no controlling. This is a “limbo loss.” It is for me just to say “yes, I will be a witness and a loving, constant presence.” I was blessed with exceptional parents who saw me through everything for five decades of life, and it is my honor to be with my father as he makes this last journey.

What I want to tell you is how this is from the inside.

Maybe you will never know, and maybe you will, but if you are human, you will someday be in a position to support someone who is living with limbo loss. You will confront in yourself, or in a fellow traveler the fear, anxiety and struggle that come with facing the death of someone so tightly woven into the fabric of life that their absence threatens to unravel everything.

Of course I can only tell you how you could help me because that’s all I really know. But I suspect that I am not a unique and special snowflake in the history of grief. Also (and this is important) if you listen, if you lay down your own fears and stories and prejudices, you will often know exactly what someone needs to feel supported, comforted and loved. No matter who they are.

If I were a rich man, I would not be working at all right now.

I love my job, but I am just kind of a mess. I can’t afford not to work. No matter what’s going on. No matter how I feel. I am pretty sure there are a lot of people in the same boat.

I lurch from stoic calm to darting into closets and bathrooms to cry, put in eye drops, fix my mascara and get back to work. Things set me off: a little girl and her daddy in earnest conversation, an older couple sharing an apple, or a genuine expression of sympathy.

I would like not to be embarrassed about this because I think it’s perfectly natural. I would like no one to be embarrassed about their strong, genuine emotions at a time of great stress and upheaval. Some people are stoic by nature, and sometimes I am. Some people are very emotional when someone they love is sick or dying, and sometimes I am.

I hope that if you have a coworker who is in this frightening, isolating space that you will open your mind and your heart and help them do what they need to do. They are not just sad, they are afraid—even as they suffer, they live with the certain uncertainty that worse is coming, harder is coming, hope is pointless.

Cover for them. Suspend judgment. Recalibrate your thinking so that it isn’t about what’s “fair,” or how exceptions to rules create some slippery slope leading to low productivity and mayhem. Be kind.

It’s hard for me to make you comfortable with my grief.

Did I mention that my emotions are all over the place? I am tired from the psychic stress of trying to understand and accept what’s happening, and the anxiety about what’s coming. If I were doing nothing but sitting in a chair all day, I would be exhausted by that. Sometimes I have to take pills so I can sleep, but I am terrified that I won’t be able to wake up if I’m needed, so I feel guilty about taking the pills. Sometimes I want people around and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I can’t talk without crying, and sometimes I make jokes about morphine drips and the angel of death.

So if you are uncomfortable with sadness, or if you really think people should “keep it together” and not scare the horses? Fuck off. Seriously. I’m not judging you, but you really aren’t helping.

Otherwise, meet me where I am. Smooth the rough edges with care and compassion. Laugh with me if I’m laughing and try to hang with me when I stop laughing and start crying. It’s uncomfortable, that sharp, hysterical turn, and I know that. It is also the realest, deepest, most soul-satisfying kind of human connection we ever have the privilege to make.

I don’t always know what I want or what I need right now, but you might.

Without my mother, I began to feel unmoored. Losing my father so soon after, I sometimes feel that nobody knows me, loves me, understands me as they always did.

If you asked me what I wanted right now, my honest answer would be that I would like to eat several pounds of Hostess fruit pies, and then take enough drugs that I could sleep through all of this and wake up refreshed and free from grief. If you ask me in five minutes I will say that what I need is to work on being fully present, meditating, exercising, and eating healthy foods to keep myself strong and functional. Both are true. Neither is true. I just don’t know.

But you might. You might call and ask if you can come over and bring your small daughter who would love to play with me. (I would love to play with her). You might, as my beloved BFF did, buy me a massage. You might ask me out to lunch and be willing to talk about It or not talk about It. You might text me just to say “hang in there, I love you lots.”

And you are always doing your best, and I know that, and I love you for that. It is my fervent wish that we might all learn to tune in and be present with those who are suffering grief, heartbreak and loss, because we are all on the same journey.

Sometimes we have the strength and energy to hold up a fellow traveler when they stumble or fall, and sometimes we are the fallen, desperate for a hand to hold, and a loving heart to open wide and carry us to safety.

And that opening, that lifting up, whether we are giving or receiving, really is everything that matters. For all of us. For always.


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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: stephalicious on flickr

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Cami Krueger Apr 6, 2014 3:53pm

Ann, this is one of the most beautiful, heart wrenching, heart-bell-ringing-hit-the-nail-on-the-head-in-words-I-have-not-yet-found to describe my own grief. What an incredible talent you have in allowing your feelings to move onto the page, and thus to touch and move all of us. I am with you, sweet Ann, in this ethernet world of digital communication – and I am hugging you.
A few years before my father's sudden death, a dear friend's father passed away. And I remembered when she came to my father's funeral, and she hugged me, and she told me she loved me and that when her own father died, I was the friend who showed up and sat with her and did not run from her grief. I held her hand. We cried together. Then we watched a basketball game and drank a bottle of wine while laughing until we cried. Those bitter sweet moments, in our pain and our grief and our confusion – it is here where we are most intimate, most vulnerable, our most human.
I feel honored to read your heart. Thank you for writing this. Keep writing. We all need to be vulnerable with each other more often. (((hugs)))

leafstrewngirl2012 Apr 3, 2014 5:59pm

Ann, I am so sorry that you are having to go through this. My mom is one of the anchors of my world – understands my quirks, loves me unconditionally – and I know when the time comes when I will lose her it will be very very hard. I have no magic answer, I wish I did. Sometimes in times of loss, especially when loss comes in so many different ways, I think of the old quote about never truly losing what we once enjoyed because all that we have loved becomes a part of us. I know it is not always possible to be strong, or stoic, nor should you be expected to be. That's okay. The love and the lessons she gave you will still be a guidepost for you to follow. It's a scary place – to have our own struggles and then to lose parents. I wish you comfort and peace and hope that the future will fall into place, built on the love your parents gave you and the love you will give yourself to heal.

Sally Swift Apr 3, 2014 3:25pm

When the question is posed, What is love or Describe grief, many have tried, very few succeeded in presenting cogent answers. Until now. I've tried, over and over, sometimes with insight and even eloquence, but I've never reached the shore as you have here. This. This is a manual for anyone grieving and for those who want to help. Hang in there, Annie, I love you lots.

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Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols has been everything from a cellist to a lawyer, and is currently a Buddhist who gets paid to cook at a Protestant church. She lives in a 100-year old house in Michigan with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals. You can hang out with her by joining the Facebook group “Metta-Morphosis.”