This morning, a friend and former co-worker shared an interesting article from the Huffington Post about how to talk to a grieving friend. The author of the piece, Celeste Headlee, writes that one of her friends had lost her dad. Headlee found her sitting on a bench outside their workplace. She was staring at the horizon, not moving or speaking. Headlee wanted to help, but didn’t know what to say. She thought about how she’d grown up without her father. He’d drowned in a submarine when Headlee was nine months old. Even though she’d never known him, she had grieved for him.
Headlee thought she was commiserating and sympathizing with her friend, letting her know that she “knew how she felt”. But when she was finished speaking, her friend snapped, “Okay, Celeste, you win. You never had a dad, and I at least got to spend 30 years with mine. You had it worse. I guess I shouldn’t be so upset that my dad just died.”
Headlee was taken aback by her friend’s reaction. It hadn’t occurred to her that she had flipped the situation to be about her. She thought she was showing solidarity in relating that story about her dad. But Headlee’s friend was grieving and raw with pain. She didn’t want to hear about her friend’s grief. At that time, she needed love and support and someone who was actively listening to her and responding with kindness.
People do this all the time. I’ve done it. I’m sure you’ve done it. You hear someone talking about how they’re in pain because of some kind of misfortune. Instead of simply listening quietly and offering support, many of us feel compelled to say “me too”. There is a time for “me too” and there is a time when “me too” isn’t appropriate. If someone is looking for love and support, they don’t need to hear about how you’ve been hurt, too. At least not at that moment. Maybe later, you can have a talk about your mutual experiences. But when the pain is raw and the loss is new, it’s better to save that sob story for later. It can seem like one-upmanship, or even worse, flat out narcissism.
Still, I understand how hard it is to save that story. I like to tell stories myself. I will admit that in the months since we lost Zane, I’ve responded to posts about others who have also lost their dogs to lymphoma by commiserating. Cancer sucks. Canine cancer really sucks. I still miss Zane every day, although I’m not grieving like I was in September. What I usually try to do is express condolences, wishes for peace and comfort, and support first, even if I slip in a “commiserating” comment last. But after reading this article, I think maybe the best thing to say is simply “I’m sorry. How can I help?” or “If you need anything, let me know.”
No matter what, though, I try very hard never to say “I know just how you feel.” Some time ago, I realized that it’s impossible for me to know how another person feels or what they’re thinking, no matter what. I only know how I feel and what I think. I can only speak for myself. I don’t even know if the person next to me sees the color blue the same way I do. I don’t know if they hear music the way I do. I don’t know if they experience a cool breeze or a hot shower the way I do. I can assume they do, but I don’t know for sure. I can only guess.
Even if someone seems overwhelmed by excitement or completely down in the dumps due to some kind of loss, I truly don’t know how they feel. I know how I might feel in that situation, but even then, if I’m not experiencing it and haven’t lived their lives, I really don’t know. I know how I felt when my father died, but I don’t know how my cousin felt when her dad/my uncle died. My uncle and I got along better than my dad and I did, and I was a bit sadder about his death than I was when my dad died. It’s not that I wished death on my father, although in many ways, I think it was a blessing. My dad had Lewy Body Dementia, which is a horrible, progressive, cruel disease that robs people of their sanity and independence. My cousin’s dad/my uncle had a major stroke and was relatively active and independent until two weeks before he died.
Which death was “sadder”? I guess it depends on how you look at it. My dad lived longer, but his quality of life wasn’t as good. He spent the last six years of his life totally dependent on my mom. My uncle was out and about when he had his stroke. Death came for him in a matter of two weeks. For my dad, it was years. Maybe it’s sadder that my uncle died the way he did because it was so sudden. A year ago, he was still alive and there was no reason to believe he’d be dead within seven months. With my dad, death was also kind of sudden. He’d had emergency gallbladder surgery and was unable to recover from the anesthesia. If he hadn’t had the surgery, he probably still would have died because the gallbladder was very inflamed and infected. Maybe death would have come sooner and been more painful. Either way, it was bound to happen.
My cousin was a total “Daddy’s girl” and she was very close to her dad. My dad and I weren’t very close, even though I believe we loved each other. I cried only a little when he died, and if I’m honest, I don’t miss him much. He and I fought a lot, and he was frequently abusive to me. I know he was a basically good person, but he had a lot of demons and, unfortunately, I got the brunt of the consequences related to his untreated depression, alcoholism, and PTSD. My uncle, on the other hand, was funny, laid back, and for the most part, just a wonderful, generous guy. It helped that I didn’t live with him, either. If I had lived with him, maybe I’d feel differently… although I kind of doubt that. He was my favorite relative, and I think we had a special relationship. Still, it was not the same relationship he had with my cousin, and my cousin and I are totally different people. I don’t know how she feels about his death. She doesn’t know how I feel about his death, or my dad’s death.
My three older sisters probably feel differently about our dad. I have a feeling my eldest sister, especially, took his death hard. I think she was my dad’s favorite daughter. They did things together, spent time together, had the longest time together as father and daughter, and I know he admired and respected her for being successful and beautiful. I don’t think they fought much, mainly because she was the firstborn and strived for perfection in all things. Also, she moved out of the house when she was about seventeen and went to the Royal Ballet School in London. I, on the other hand, boomeranged back to my parents’ house until I was 27 years old and could finally move out for good. Even though we’re sisters, I don’t know how she feels about our dad. I only know how I feel.
Anyway… I think after reading that article, I’m going to try harder to be supportive and a good listener when someone is grieving or otherwise in pain. At the same time, I think there’s something to be said for those who try to be kind when someone is in pain. Even if they say the wrong thing, at least they tried. Unless it’s clear that they meant to be hurtful or a clod, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. The only comment I got after Zane died that really hurt was when one of my relatives told me that Zane was now “in a better place”. While I know some people say that to mean he’s gone on to a better world, this particular relative has told me more than once that she’s an atheist, so she probably doesn’t believe in “better places”. And either way, saying that means she thinks that Zane is better off dead than with his loving family… which really is kind of shitty, even if it happens to be true. But this relative also told me, just after we lost our paternal grandmother, that she’d always suspected that I wasn’t my father’s biological daughter (which 23andme has now proven that I am). So I don’t go to her for comfort, anyway.
The most comforting beings in my life are my husband, who always knows what to say and do, and my dog(s), who also always know what to say and do. And even beyond the grave, Bill and I get comfort from Zane, too. In fact, Bill dreamt about him this morning… sitting in our living room in his young, healthy state, wagging his tail, shaking off, and letting Bill pet him before he awoke. Maybe he is in a better place now…. but he’s still with us in our hearts and dreams. But no one else knows how I feel about him, not even Bill.