I recently lost a member of my immediate family. It was the first time that’s ever happened to me, and considering my immediate family consists of just four people (including me), it predictably turned my world upside down.
Now that I’ve had some time to reflect, the only way I know to cope is to put some thoughts down on paper (or on the inviting screen of a MacBook Pro, in this case). So here goes.
On Witnessing. I had the fortunate (or unfortunate) luck of being able to sit with my loved one as he passed. At first I was horrified by the suffering he was enduring, then relieved when the nurses “made him comfortable” with his final cocktail of medicines. We felt right about respecting his Do Not Resuscitate wishes, but no part of it was easy. For hours we waited, by his side, as he grew quieter and thankfully, more peaceful. Throughout the day, small signs of normalcy infuriated me. The pleasant cleaning lady mopping the floor under his bed; the large family in the waiting room giggling at the television overhead; the cafeteria staff ringing up our tiny bowls of vegetable soup as if it was just another day at work. Of course, my loved one was oblivious, but I resented the fact that life was going on around us when such despair was imminent. I made several trips to the brightly lit, bubblegum-scented restroom either to cry or try to throw up. I was always too hot or too cold; never in between. The nurses couldn’t have been more wonderful, checking on all of us, ensuring his comfort right up to the very end. I kept watching him, thinking his final breath would be some sort of morbid announcement that he was gone, that it would be noticeable and obvious, but it wasn’t. In fact, he lived on several minutes after he took his final breath — the nurses informed us he still had a pulse. When they returned to check again moments later, one on each side of him to be absolutely sure, they behaved just as the hospital staff on Days of our Lives always does. One said to the other “I’m calling it,” as she looked at the clock and noted the time. And then they hugged us and left us alone for a final goodbye before the nursing supervisor came in to walk us through the next steps. It was nothing short of surreal.
On the Next Steps. Thank God for Six Feet Under. I interviewed Alan Ball once for my podcast years ago, and I know I told him I was a fan of the show, but it can’t be understated how much watching it helped prepare me for my first-ever visit to a funeral home. It happened just as it used to for the fictional Fishers and I’m grateful I knew what to expect. Every interaction was very compassionate, yet matter-of-fact; dark, yet calm. As the associate went to print out paperwork, I absorbed my surroundings, wondering how they chose the odd artwork on the walls. The Kleenex on the table begged for us to break down and at one point while we were alone, we did, but thankfully the meeting took less than an hour, because we knew exactly what the deceased wanted.
On Processing. Different people grieve in different ways. Some people collapse into dramatic sobs; others lash out in unprovoked fits of anger. People like me, however, quietly shrink in disbelief and struggle to form sentences when necessary. All I know is that no matter the reaction, no grieving person should ever be held responsible or accountable for anything they say or do in the weeks following a tragedy.
On Condolences. It’s very nice to let someone who has suffered a loss know that you love them and are there for them. I was incredibly moved by the flowers and cards that arrived once we announced our sad news.
On Condolences, Part 2. One of the things that was hard for us in the early days was the fact that many friends didn’t have my parents’ current address (though I had told folks to message me privately on social media for it). Instead of simply asking me, they went ahead and sent the flowers, etc. to the address where my parents had lived in 2009, so it inconvenienced the people who currently live there, and it made for some logistical juggling for us to retrieve the items. We were grateful for the gesture, but stuff like that isn’t what we wanted to be focusing on while we were still adjusting to the shock. For future reference, if you don’t absolutely know for sure where to send something, please do the bereaved the courtesy of asking.
On The Tradition of Food. One of the most customary things to do for those in mourning is to deliver hot meals. We received everything from creamy soups to grilled cheese sandwiches and cookies the weekend after our tragedy. We appreciated all of it and ate nearly none of it. We just weren’t hungry and couldn’t force our bodies to cooperate. That said, the frozen items are beginning to be thawed out and enjoyed now, so if your heart tells you to prepare food, make it something that can be preserved for later.
On Unconventional Gifts. Personally, these things helped me most. The pal that sent me a funny clip from one of our mutual favorite shows; the couple that had their young children draw pictures for me; the friend that treated me to a relaxing pedicure; my former colleagues who sent a customized care package complete with chocolate and a bottle of whiskey. All of these things made me feel loved and treasured because I felt like the givers really knew me. They realized that I would need to laugh, feel comfort and allow myself to indulge because I’d been purposely depriving myself of all of those things.
On Survivors’ Guilt. Even though I was several decades younger than my family member who passed, I felt guilty for my healthy body and mind. I didn’t think I had permission to continue enjoying life. I didn’t feel right about reading the lighthearted book I brought with me or going to a movie (always my greatest escape) because I knew he couldn’t do those things anymore. It may not have been rational, but it was real.
On Social Media. I’m thankful for it. Unlike decades past, I didn’t have to make 30 phone calls or sit down and write a dozen letters letting people know of my loved one’s passing — I simply posted it once to a carefully curated list of friends and family on Facebook and let the Internet take it from there. It was a great relief to only have to write those words once.
On Privacy. Despite the fact his obituary was only in a few local newspapers, I still received very personal condolences from acquaintances that never knew of or met the deceased, and barely know me. I couldn’t help but feel awkward about this — their hearts were in the right place (I hope), but somehow it didn’t feel quite right. A message via Twitter would have sufficed if they felt moved to respond. I just took this as a lesson to myself that if I see someone grieving from a distance that I don’t know very well, I will most likely say a silent prayer for them and just give them space.
On Prayer. Whatever your religion or lack thereof, there have been studies done that imply that those who are prayed for (whether they know it or not) are more likely to heal faster from trauma — mental or physical. I can safely say, having been the recipient of a mountain of prayers these past few weeks, that in my case it’s true. The positive energy our family received was almost tangible and I’m certain those moments of calm we would feel, where we realized the sun would again someday shine, were a credit to those who kept us in their thoughts and meditations.
On Messaging. It’s natural to want to be there for someone who you care for in their time of need, and many of my friends and family expressed this via the quickest way they knew to reach me: text message. I can’t say I blame them, for I’ve done the same thing. But what happened was this: every time I would hear the ping of my phone going off, I was right back to my most raw point of grief, no matter what progress I’d made on composure that day. I knew that the instant I read whatever sweet message they’d written, I’d collapse into another puddle of tears. It became so exhausting, I quit responding at some point and turned the phone to vibrate, hiding it under pillows so I wouldn’t even hear the buzz. I hope I didn’t offend anyone with my silence.
On Emails. I felt very comforted by emails. The thoughtful, personal messages and offers for help were perfect because I could tend to them whenever I felt strong enough to read them. And I did read and respond to all of them at my own pace, unlike texts, which I felt obligated to answer immediately.
On Breathing. In the fog of grief, it’s sometimes hard to remember to breathe. With everyone hovering around the first few days, I felt very suffocated by the attention. Again, it’s not that I didn’t appreciate the sentiment; it’s just that I wanted some distance while I adjusted to my ‘new normal.’ Perhaps other people are different, but I’m used to solitude so that’s my quickest path to healing.
On Friendship. The saying is true: you really do find out who your friends are in times of trouble. My heart is swollen with love by the amount of people from every stage of my life who have stepped up to support me and my family as we grieve. My high school BFF telling me to call her anytime — day or night —and knowing she meant it, despite the fact she has two young children to look after; my Seattle BFF offering to join me for a hike or whatever I need to make me feel better, though she also has two small children to parent; my ex-boyfriends that reached out though I haven’t spoken with them in months (or years, in one case); the atU2 staff that I’ve considered family for the past decade that sent me lyrics or quotes to accompany the flowers… the list goes on. I’m so incredibly blessed to have such compassionate people in my life.
On Kindness. From my longtime hairstylist who refused to charge me for my haircut to colleagues I’ve only known for a month sending me messages of hope and help, I’ve learned there is a deep well of kindness in human beings. No matter how many horrible things are happening in our individual lives or the greater world, the good really does outweigh the bad.
On the Cost of Death. Insurance doesn’t cover everything. From hospital bills to arrangements for the deceased to obituaries to death certificates to transportation for errands, death is really expensive. I will need to take a break from my social life for a few months, not just to heal mentally, but to recover financially. I hope everyone understands why I’m denying their well-intentioned invites.
On Paying Respects. One of the best ways we felt to pay tribute to my loved one was to request donations for a cause he was passionate about. Since he was always feeding the hungry (whether it be driving meals to families in the inner city around the holidays or taking a hot plate of food to a neighbor less fortunate), we felt it best to honor him by asking for contributions to the Oregon Food Bank. If you’re moved to do so, they (and we) would appreciate the donation.