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April 29, 2017

How to Practice the Art of Holding Space for the Grieving.

Being present for someone who’s grieving the death of a loved one, without advice or the ability to fix, is an art.

No one can tell us how to grieve. Each loss is different; each loss is the same.

If this is the first time someone close to you has died, I’m so sorry.

Welcome to the club no one wants to belong to.

Even if you’ve lost and grieved before, it hits hard, raw, and real every time.

I was 25 the first time my 27-year-old brother’s death opened the door to grief. “Come on in. Welcome to the darkness.”

I didn’t have time to grieve, I had to take care of my mother. Besides, my brother’s death meant I had to live enough for both of us. Onward!

Oh, how I miss my 20s and my belief in invincibility.

When I was 28, my mother slipped out of life’s gate to the other side. I did my best to make her proud and live on with her warrior woman strength.

Until a year later, when I fell down into a suicidal puddle. Grief!

I’ve walked grief’s path in the minutest detail, or so I thought, until my most recent journey: my boyfriend Kevin, last year, heart attack in his sleep.

Boyfriend doesn’t capture the depth of my relationship with this beautiful soul I knew two decades before we became each other’s love in our 50s and made plans for a life together.

There are no words to describe our love. There are no words to describe my loss. Yet, I keep weaving some and finding myself amazed at how weak the tapestry is at revealing the intensity of my pain.

That, right there—wanting to show how special and unique our relationship was, so others understand our hearts are crushed—is a theme of grief.

No one can truly know what our relationship, connection, or loss is; they can only know theirs and consider it similar—which may or may not be true.

I thank God for the people who tried to relate in those moments. Those who stood by my side while I grieved. They had the best intentions; but I wanted them to get the hell away.

Grief comes with the sharpest edges, and there is no universal road map on how to navigate through it, or help someone in the grip of its darkness.

Being present for someone who’s grieving the death of a loved one, without advice or the ability to fix, is an art.

Here’s to the artists in my life.

First, April—a gal I barely knew. Hell, I hardly knew anyone in Chicago where I lived when my mom died. April offered to meet me in a bar and listen all night as I told her who my mom was and what she meant to me.   

Then, April showed me a scrap book she’d made after her dad died. She didn’t say, “You should do this,” she just told me the step helped her. For me, April’s scrapbook served as a signpost, like in marathons when the faster runners are returning on their way to cheer each other to the finish line.

Just keep picking up and putting down, one foot, then the other. Just keep breathing.

The death of my loved ones made it necessary for me to remember to breathe—something we can so easily forget. It felt like I was swimming underwater and I could let it swallow me. Dear April dove into the water with me.

When my sister’s husband died, I saw her drowning in grief. I was deeply saddened for this loss, but I knew I couldn’t get into that ocean with my sister.

Instead I sat on the side like a parent watching a child flail during swim lessons. I wanted to throw her a life jacket or sail her back ashore myself.

Respecting this grief was hers, I stayed on the edge. I kept warm towels, cold beer, and open ears for whenever she swam to me. It was a lot—of beers and tears. And cheering when she learned to do the butterfly.

People may never grasp my gratitude for the way they held me after my boyfriend died.

I wasn’t capable of receiving in previous chapters. I just couldn’t. But this time, yes. This time, hugs.

We have to remember where people are, not presume what we’d want in our grief is what they want or need. Also, they may not know. I didn’t.

I didn’t know people I’d never met would have a healing impact—people who faced grief personally, but didn’t make it about them as I was escorted into the club.

I didn’t know Tammy, one of my boyfriend’s childhood friends who invited me to stay in her townhouse and come and go as I pleased when I flew into Tampa for his memorial service.

She asked what I’d like to have in the fridge, and I was too numb to lie. So she stocked it with water, beer, and grapefruit juice, just like I’d requested. She handed me coffee when I thought I would crash.

Tammy made sure I knew the directions and met me in front of the funeral home so I didn’t have to walk in alone. She introduced me to people and took me to dinner with her mom and sisters when the evening wound down.

Being close and giving space—without being overbearing or pretending we were besties—brought me incomparable comfort.

Then, my girlfriend Sam invited me to Cocoa Beach where she was vacationing with a group of friends. She included me while making space for my need to be alone. She fielded ridiculous questions when I didn’t feel like talking, and got me a to-go cup for my beer. “Walk down the beach. We’ll drive and meet you at the restaurant.” I slipped out the back to scream at the ocean.

How do some people know exactly what to say or do while others seem driven by their own need? 

Like the gal who had just lost her dog and claimed she understood what my sister was going through after her husband of 33 years died. My dog is my baby and when she dies, I’ll be devastated, but it’s just not the same.

Contrast that with Sally, a woman I’ve still never met, another friend of Kevin’s. She called me when I was on the beach shortly after Kevin’s service. During that time everyone was calling and I was avoiding many.

I don’t remember her words, but her voice soothed me. Now, it’s over a year later and she still sends text messages acknowledging my love for Kevin and his for me. What a blessing.

I still don’t know why I took her call or how this stranger is able to touch me.

I know this: We can’t reach everyone. We can only reach out and offer. 

Also, when we’re the one grieving, we can’t let everyone in—even though they may have the best intentions.

We’re fragile and we must hold our broken pieces together in the ways that work for us. No guilt. No shame. No obligation. No explanation.

Hence, when we reach out to someone who’s just lost a person who held a place in their heart and life, we must do it without ego or expectation.

I’ve been writing my blog at AliceinAuthorland for about a year and a half. Many of my pieces are about grief.

A friend in my writing group has been a faithful follower of my blog. Recently, her sister died and now she tells me my writing helps her navigate her grief. She feels grateful. I feel humbled. 

Imagine that—being of benefit.

To touch someone when they’re grieving may be the greatest gift to come from the losses I’ve endured. I’m in the club I never wanted to belong to.

The entry is difficult. Every. Single. Time.

When my mother died, a woman we’d never met signed her paycheck over to my sister and me. Who does that? A club member.

And yet, it’s not a requirement to have lost a loved one to be present for someone in her season of grief.

When my sister’s husband died, one of her friends (uninitiated to the death of close loved ones—lucky!), served as a surrogate sister while I lived in another state. She listened, made herself available, didn’t push too hard or run too far. She shared meals and time. Sometimes, she came to my sister’s home and they simply worked side by side on their computers. She was there.

Often, staying present is all we can do for the grieving. And it’s everything.

Other times, giving space is the best gift of all. But, not too much.

I craved time alone after my beloved died, because that’s how I felt closest to him. However, left on my own for too long, I could’ve dove so deep into the darkness, I might have never come out.

My sister didn’t let that happen. She included me, invited me, and gave me permission to say no.

My decision making skills died with my man. Along with him went my hunger, desire, and passion. The only thing I knew I wanted was gone—him.

My sister making decisions for me at times, even as trivial as what to eat, allowed me to move forward. Baby steps.

Nothing makes one feel so stuck as grief, like a table full of options has been swiped to the floor.

So many people did so many things for me, I’m sure there are dozens I didn’t appreciate, have forgotten, or didn’t even notice—because I was busy grieving.

Grief can take everything we have. It is all-consuming when it first hits. It hits like Ali. Or sometimes like a sickness or broken ribs.

Grief isn’t something to pity. It’s a path. Most of us will walk it sometime in our lives.

We can respect the journey of the grieving and honor their pain. We can hold their hand, wipe their tears, and offer hugs.

We can back off or lean in. We can listen. We can speak their loved ones’ names and not wince over their pain.

We cannot heal others’ grief for them. But, we can hold space and be present as they make their way.

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Author: Alice Lundy
Image: Josh_Pesavento/Flickr; Pixabay
Apprentice Editor: Maïlis Bietenhader; Editor: Travis May

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