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Death has a way of stealing the freshness, the frolic, our lighthearted dance with life.
Has your innocence been stolen by death?
Through death, reality has an intimate visit with us, and there is no longer a safe harbor of denial where we can dock our ship.
We mourn those who have gone before us and are reminded of the eventuality of death for ourselves and our loved ones; this fact alone can cause worry and overwhelming anxiety that lingers and complicates our grief.
After experiencing four deaths within our close family in a short period of time—and being intimately involved in walking two of them home—death has left me with an undeniable aftertaste and compassion for others who experience loss.
We are a society that walks with blinders on, avoiding death.
All the while, a mother tragically loses two young adult children within six weeks of each other, multiple children from one family are killed in a car accident, a partner finds their soulmate’s body after they’ve ended their life, and loved ones join the long—or shockingly short—walk home that cancer brings.
Our experiences of it are limitless, but we still treat death as if it is uncommon, a visitor that might be kept at bay if we don’t speak its name. We only have the capacity to hold so much sadness, so much anguish, and yes, it can be difficult to walk into that space with another human.
But these stories, these realities of death and dying are what life is made of—and they’re happening every minute of the day.
My loss triggered a desire to see the beautiful reality of death, moving away from the superficial “everything’s fine,” and toward the anguish and the sorrow and the joy and bliss, and I encourage others to become more literate in the topic of death, dying, and the aftermath.
With that goal in mind, I have been interviewing people regarding their experiences surrounding death, which can give some unique and unexpected insight.
Today I share with you some common themes that have recurred in people’s experiences with death and dying:
1. Give me space.
Understand that while some people thrive from being with others during troubling times, others need hibernation.
Someone who is grieving and appearing reclusive can set alarms off for the bystanders, but rather than stepping in to control the situation with invites, prompts, and incessant checking in, have a conversation about it. Do you need time alone? Does it feel like the right thing for you right now? How often do you want me to come by or check in? Is there anything I can do to help you with getting more space?
2. Make no assumptions.
Grief looks different for every person, and for every death. Don’t just assume you know where someone’s at, emotionally. Some people may keep busy, some may need to have alone time. Some will break into hysterical laughter and others will not get through a sentence without tears.
You may assume there is a huge support system, but those people may have disappeared. You may think you know how a person is doing by their demeanor or actions, but those are assumptions.
Rather than wonder in silence or assume you know the answers to the questions: ask how a person is doing and offer to be of service.
3. Please let go of judgement.
Grief and loss can bring out the judgiest of the judgers.
People do not need to hear negative comments about how they handled the illness and/or death experience, how they are grieving, or how they’re handling other matters in the aftermath, and yet, shockingly, judgement can be common on this journey.
I’d argue that because of our culture’s illiteracy surrounding death and dying, people start “should-ing” all over each other. And it stinks.
If you find yourself leaning in that direction: pause, breathe, and check in with your emotions. Look at what tough stuff you may be trying to avoid by pointing the finger during such delicate times.
And as the recipient? If you are at all able, silently send compassion because someone making judgement in such sensitive times may be struggling themselves. And then, let it go.
4. Decide to practice compassion within your family and support system.
The number of familial splits after a loss is staggering.
Disagreements over the care of the loved one, the business, or other matters in the aftermath are classic sources of conflict. Familial drama is no stranger when families are in crisis.
Have proactive conversations long before these situations arise. Acknowledge the commonality of such conflicts and agree to avoid falling into that pattern—simply being aware of it beforehand is helpful.
If this type of conflict is directed at you, understand that you cannot control others. Internally channel First Lady Michelle Obama’s mantra of preservation: when they go low, we go high. Try your best to not let interpersonal conflicts dilute the emotional work you are meant to be doing: tending to your own loss and grief.
Unfortunately some will choose destructive, dramatic conflict over self-exploration and being supportive of others. If any of this rings true in your family, be prepared to limit your engagement and consider it radical self-care.
5. Relationship difficulties.
For some of us, rather than unpacking our own distressing emotions, we resort to anger. Anger that this event happened, that it’s a reminder death will visit again. Our partners, as well, can experience their own anger when they’re rendered helpless, unable to fix the situation that is causing our distress.
And that anger can appear in many ways: fresh and raw, or being disconnected, retreating, or showing increased agitation at everything going on around us.
Be the observer. If you notice yourself feeling more irritable, angry, and tempted to disconnect, pause and take emotional inventory of where your grief is resting in that moment.
For those receiving the brunt of someone’s anger, it’s helpful to understand that this is a common pattern of behavior when going through grief. Agree to give each other emotional space, and release the expectation of either of you being the savior in the situation. Try to make neutral time when you can discuss what is going on, understanding that grief and its effects do not recede overnight.
If changes in the relationship dynamic are difficult to cope with, remember: it’s the smart couple that gets assistance proactively instead of reactively.
One question I often ask is if the interviewee has felt contact or a connection with their loved one since their passing. The answer has been unequivocally yes. But again, this is an area we don’t typically discuss because we wouldn’t want to make others uncomfortable.
These experiences are universal. They hold the mystery of death so beautifully, and they give us a peek through that delicate keyhole of “what’s next.”
Tell your stories. Ask the questions. This is a gift of death that is frequently overlooked. And if you long for these experiences with your loved one, the first step is to get quiet in meditation and intention. Sit, ask, and observe. And then repeat.
7. There is no “getting over it.”
So many people are asked, “Isn’t it time you start moving on?”
A young mother, who had given birth in the year since her partner’s death and was explaining symptoms of her crippling grief, was asked by her physician, “How long has it been? A year? Shouldn’t you be feeling better by now?”
For all of the friends, colleagues, and health professionals who have the slightest urge to ask similar questions, don’t. Grief for a well-loved person is never “gotten over.” In fact, asking those questions accentuates someone’s grief because it brings on feelings of emotional isolation—they feel like they’re not being heard or understood.
8. Say their name.
This simple request comes up over and over and over again. Don’t be afraid to honor the deceased by mentioning their name. Are you thinking it might not be healthy for the recipient? Start a conversation: “How do you feel about talking about [name]? Is it hard for you if I bring them up? I want to do what makes you feel most comfortable, but know that I frequently think of them fondly.”
Many parents beg, “Just share a memory with me. My loved one comes alive for that moment you are painting that picture.”
9. Papa don’t preach.
Falling back on doctrine and quotes does nothing to help, to create connection, and instead distances the “preacher” from emotionally connecting with the griever. Unless someone is seeking that specific guidance, refrain from sharing doctrine, quotes, and directives.
Again, asking what one needs is the only way to know for sure. We are all so different. And if you have the tendency to “preach,” maybe it would be helpful to explore your own relationship with death, dying, and the aftermath first.
10. Remember love.
Above all else, come from a place of love and compassion. Remember that love is what connects us, that it has an energy of its own. If you can do nothing else, send love to the grieving and to the deceased.
Will you welcome death as a total stranger, ignored and avoided, or an expected acquaintance whom you’ve honored and respected? Please join the conversation.