Biden, disasters, Military, politicians, politics

A comparison of presidential condolences…

This morning, I read an article in the Washington Post about the father of one of the Marines who died last week in Afghanistan. The father, whose name is Mark Schmitz, was at Dover Air Force Base, waiting for his son’s remains to be repatriated. Schmitz’s son, Jared, was 20 years old when he perished. Schmitz was reportedly angry, and initially didn’t want to speak to Joe Biden. He didn’t vote for Biden, and he blames the president for the fact that his son died.

But then Mr. Schmitz changed his mind, and he and his ex wife did speak to President Biden, just days after losing Jared to a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. Schmitz said he “glared” hard at the president, so Biden paid more attention to Schmitz’s ex, speaking of his son, Beau, who died in 2015. I suspect that Biden might have thought that reminding the grieving family members that he’s lost a child, too, was his clumsy attempt at empathy.

Naturally, Mr. Schmitz didn’t want to talk about Beau Biden. He wanted to talk about Jared, who died much too young. And Schmitz is pissed off at Biden because his son is gone. He said to Mr. Biden, “Don’t you ever forget that name. Don’t you ever forget that face. Don’t you ever forget the names of the other 12… And take some time to learn their stories. ”

According to Schmitz, Biden’s response was “I do know their stories.”

Schmitz did offer “kudos” to Biden for one thing. Biden pulled out a card that he carries in his breast pocket that shows the number of Americans who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the end of the card, Biden had written “Plus 13.” Schmitz was apparently glad to see that Biden wasn’t totally full of it, even if his comments seemed “scripted and shallow”. Schmitz also recognized that the meeting must have been very hard for Joe Biden. Schmitz said:

“It had to be one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. You make some calls, here’s the aftereffect. It’s got to be difficult. I’m not saying it was easy at all. But you can’t run up and hug someone as if you had nothing to do with it. It’s not going to work that way when you’re commander in chief.”

Other people were a lot angrier at Biden. One person said she hoped he burned in Hell. Roice McCollum, the sister of Ryan McCollum, one of the fallen, said this to the Washington Post:

“He cannot possibly understand… My dad and I did not want to speak to him. You cannot kneel on our flag and pretend you care about our troops. You can’t f— up as bad as he did and say you’re sorry. This did not need to happen, and every life is on his hands. The thousands of Afghans who will suffer and be tortured is a direct result of his incompetence.”

As I read this account of the “tough” meeting Biden had with the families of the mostly very young American servicemembers who died in Afghanistan, I couldn’t help but remember an incident from October 2017 involving Donald Trump. On October 4, 2017, there was a deadly ambush in Niger, and two weeks after the event, Donald Trump made phone calls to family members of the fallen Soldiers. One of the calls he made was to Myeshia Johnson, widow of La David Johnson. La David Johnson was one of four Army Soldiers who had died in the ambush.

Prior to making the phone call, Trump was advised by former Marine General John Kelly, who lost his own son in Afghanistan when the 29 year old stepped on a land mine. Kelly told Trump a story about how his best friend, Joe Dunford, was Kelly’s casualty officer, and said something along the lines of this:

Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. 

In my 2017 blog post about Trump’s interaction with La David Johnson’s family, I wrote:

It seems to me that if you are two guys in the military, brothers in arms, as it were, it would make sense to say something like what General Kelly’s friend and casualty officer said. People who serve in the military understand that there is risk when a war is going on. They can talk to each other about the business of war, because they have a concept of it. They understand the job; they’ve been through the training and indoctrination; and saying something like “He was doing exactly what he wanted to do…” makes sense. However, I don’t think the same thing is true for family members of the fallen.

In the course of Trump’s phone call intended to express condolences to Myeshia Johnson, he forgot La David Johnson’s name. He told Mrs. Johnson, who was pregnant at the time, that her husband “knew what he signed up for… but it hurts anyway.” And then Trump said, “He was doing exactly what he wanted to do…” If memory serves, Trump also repeatedly referred to La David Johnson as “your guy” to his grieving wife.

I don’t know why La David Johnson joined the Army, and I certainly don’t know what his wife knew about her husband’s motives for serving. Maybe he wanted to be a Soldier because of a sense of duty, or maybe he just wanted the money and benefits. Maybe it was a combination of factors that influenced him to join. But I am willing to bet that Johnson would have preferred to have been with his wife and children to being in Niger. Even if Johnson actually did prefer to be working in Niger, as a spouse, I sure wouldn’t want to hear that my husband preferred a war zone to being at home with me. I’ll bet Mrs. Johnson didn’t want to hear that, either.

When Mrs. Johnson later complained about how tone deaf and insensitive Trump’s phone call was, Trump didn’t apologize. Instead, he tweeted “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”

Meanwhile, Myeshia Johnson said that Trump’s phone call had made her feel worse. She said, “… I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said he couldn’t remember my husband’s name.”

As people condemned Trump’s graceless handling of the Niger ambush, Trump took the opportunity to throw shade at past presidents. He said, “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls – a lot of them didn’t make calls.”

Now… I’m not saying that the families of the fallen who met with Joe Biden are wrong to be angry. I’m sure that a lot of them didn’t vote for Mr. Biden, and they think Donald Trump would have handled leaving Afghanistan better. They see Biden as “weak”. He has a very different personality than Trump has. He doesn’t come across with as much charisma, force, or bluster. They perceive Biden’s less flashy personality as less effective, and they blame Biden for “fucking up” the exit from Afghanistan as he ended America’s longest war.

Personally, I am shocked that only 13 Americans have been lost, so far, in the departure from Afghanistan. I think if Trump had been in charge, the fallout would have been much worse. Moreover, I am impressed by the number of people who were successfully evacuated from Afghanistan. According to the Washington Post, over 124,000 people have left Afghanistan alive. Yes, we did lose 13 Americans last week, and that’s a terrible thing. And there’s nothing anyone can say or do to make the families of those who died feel better. But, I do think Mr. Biden’s attempt at offering condolences was much better than Trump’s attempts to comfort the bereaved.

Some people seem to have forgotten that Donald Trump has historically had no empathy for other people’s pain and suffering. I remember what he said about the late John McCain, who was captured and tortured in Vietnam. Donald Trump, who never put on a uniform because of his “bone spurs”, called John McCain a “fucking loser”. Trump also said of McCain, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

Trump also memorably referred to members of the military as “losers and suckers”, having canceled a trip to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018. At the time, Trump falsely claimed rainy conditions had made it impossible for the helicopter to fly, and the Secret Service wouldn’t drive him there. The truth is that Trump was worried about his hair getting mussed in the rain, and he didn’t think honoring the American war dead was important enough to risk messing up his hair. According to an article written by Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic:

In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.

As I read about people who are angry at President Biden because 13 Americans died at an airport suicide attack in Kabul, then they criticize Biden’s attempts to express condolences and apologize, I can’t help but wonder how they would have reacted to Trump in the same situation. People died during the Trump administration, too. I wonder if Trump would have met personally with those family members, having remembered each and every servicemember’s name and story. I wonder if he would have pulled out a card with the names of the fallen written down. I also wonder if there would have been more dead servicemembers sent home.

The United States has been engaged with Afghanistan for 20 years. A lot of money, time, and talent has been wasted on a country whose people are still living in a different era. It was time for the conflict to end. I don’t think there was a way to win in this situation. It was bound to be messy.

Many people, safe at home, are blaming Biden. Some are also blaming military leaders, claiming that they should have recognized the threats and addressed them. I guess it’s only natural to try to second guess what people do and the decisions they make in a war zone. I just wonder if people ever stop and think about it longer than a minute.

My husband spent thirty years in the Army. He never went to Afghanistan, but he did go to Iraq. Bill never talks about what should have been done in Afghanistan, in spite of his experience. He can’t speak to what should have been done, because he wasn’t there. Most of the people who are criticizing the president and the military don’t have a concept of what was going on in Afghanistan, beyond what was in the news.

I get that the families of the fallen are grief stricken. I understand that many of them preferred Trump to Biden, and this is a great opportunity for them to cement their hatred of Biden. But, as the wife and daughter of military veterans, I can’t help but notice the difference between Biden’s style of presidential condolences and Trump’s. I think I would much prefer Biden’s clumsy attempts to comfort– talking about his son, Beau, and compulsively looking at his dead son Beau’s watch– to Trump’s tone deaf attempts– forgetting the names of the fallen, bickering with widows on Twitter, and falsely claiming that he cares more than other presidents did in similar circumstances.

In my view, Donald Trump would not have done any of this better. It probably would have been an even bigger fiasco. More people would have died, and fewer would have been evacuated. And when it came time to comfort the grieving, history shows that Trump would have probably really fucked things up even more.

I have never served in the military myself, but I have been surrounded by veterans my whole life. One thing I’ve learned is that everyone who serves knows that there’s a chance they could be killed. That’s something that comes with the territory of military service. But, if you think about it, there’s a risk in everything we do. Hell, nowadays, just breathing can get you killed.

I’m glad that the people who met with Joe Biden had the chance to look him in the eye, speak to him, accept hugs from him, or even tell him they hope he rots in Hell. Under Trump’s watch, they would have probably just gotten a phone call at the very most, with glib cliches about “knowing what they were getting into” and “dying doing exactly what they wanted to do…” coupled with forgotten names, awkward stammering, and no chance to respond.

Joe Biden didn’t kill those people who died in Afghanistan last week. They were killed by a terrorist. The young man who strapped 25 pounds to explosives to himself, went to the gate, and blew himself up for his god is the one who did the killing and maiming. If anyone should be blamed for those senseless deaths, it’s that guy, and people like him. The last military plane left Afghanistan this morning. Thank God for that. I hope we don’t ever go back. I congratulate Joe Biden for finally ending our 20 year war with Afghanistan… and for having the courage, humility, and decency to meet with the people who are grieving the tragic loss of their family members.

There’s a stark contrast in Biden’s sense of duty compared to Trump’s… Again, from my blog post from 2017, regarding La David Johnson’s death:

La David Johnson was laid to rest yesterday.  His devastated widow was there with the children and Sergeant Johnson’s other loved ones.  Mrs. Johnson kissed her husband’s casket goodbye as she clutched two folded American flags. 

Trump, by contrast, was playing golf, as usual… and, ever classy, he posted on social media as mourners were preparing for the funeral…

What a tragic disaster this man is.

Think about it.

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mental health, nostalgia, obits

When the mourning is done already…

2020 has been one hell of a year for a lot of people. For me, personally, it was not my worst year, but I know that for many people, it has been the most challenging, difficult, and horrible year ever. Much of the worst of it has been punctuated by profound loss, causing large numbers of people to mourn. People have lost their jobs, their ability to travel, their homes, their social lives, and, in some cases their health or even their lives. All of this loss, which has occurred on a worldwide scale, has affected the collective mood of the planet.

Between us, Bill and I have lost three family members since October. None of the people who died lost their lives to COVID-19. Two had cancer, and one had pneumonia that turned into septicemia, complicated by osteoporosis. There was a thought that maybe Bill’s dad had also had COVID-19, but he was tested for that and it was negative.

I think being so far away from my friends and family has made mourning somewhat less challenging. Since 2014, I’ve lost my dad, four uncles, an aunt, a cousin, a cousin’s spouse, and my father-in-law. I lost my dad only weeks before we moved over here. I remember, when I went to Natural Bridge for his memorial a few months after his death, I thought to myself that I was probably seeing some of my family members for the last time. Sure enough, that is what came to pass.

Bill, on the other hand, is newer to grieving family members than I am. He lost his Aunt Betsy last year. Last month, he lost his dad. I remember him telling me in the early years of our marriage, that he dreaded losing his father. He actually teared up a bit as he talked about it. But now that it’s happened, he’s not totally depressed.

The trouble is, he says he feels a little bit of shame for not feeling “sadder” than he does. He said he’d cried more over losing our dogs. I don’t know how or why this happened, but I blurted out, “I think maybe it’s because you mourned your dad many years ago, when your parents got divorced.” Bill’s eyes widened in surprise. It was a new thought to him. It was a new thought to me, too. I think it was a sudden flash of insight that came to me as I realized that he hadn’t lived with his dad since the late 60s and was never able to forge a very close relationship with him, even though he loved him very much.

If I were to die tomorrow, Bill would probably be devastated. We live together, so my presence would be acutely missed. We’re also very close friends as well as partners, and we are a major source of support to each other. But I think that sometimes losing family members with whom you don’t share a close, physical connection can be somewhat less traumatic. A lot depends on how bonded you are to them. And again, living far away from your friends and family can dilute that grief somewhat. Because the pain of missing someone tends to be sharpest at the time of the breakup.

At about this time in 1993, I lost my pony, Rusty. He had been my very best friend. I told him all my teenaged secrets and cried in his mane when I was upset (which happened a lot in the 1980s). Since he was an old horse, I didn’t want to sell him when it was time to go to college. I was afraid he’d end up in the wrong hands and not enjoy his last years. So I found a local horsewoman to take him in. She lived on a beautiful farm in the Northern Neck of Virginia.

In December 1993, she told me that she thought it might be time to euthanize Rusty. He was going blind because of a progressive, painful disease colloquially known as “moonblindness”. The last time I had visited him, he hadn’t seemed like himself. His eyes had little yellowish looking “moons” in them. I was sad when I left him. He didn’t seem happy.

I remember dreading the day when it would come time to say goodbye to Rusty forever. But when that day actually came, I was actually okay. I didn’t cry much at all. My old riding teacher, Louise, told me that she knew I’d already “come to grips” with what was inevitable. In a sense, I’d already mourned. I do miss Rusty. I think of him all the time, even though he’s been gone for 27 years. He really was my best friend. But I knew it was his time to go and it was for the best that he had. He wasn’t in pain anymore.

Maybe some people might take issue with me sharing this story about my pony and comparing that loss to losing a human loved one. But I had a closer relationship with that pony than I did with most of my family members. For several of my formative years, I saw him most days. I spent time working with him and bonded with him. We went to countless horse shows and fox hunts. He was my rock, and I trusted him implicitly. It hurt to lose him, but when it came down to it, I knew it was his time, and I didn’t want him to be in pain anymore. That’s what it’s come down to with all of my beloved pets when it’s been time to let them go, most of whom I would prefer to spend time with over a lot of the humans I know.

I didn’t have an especially close relationship with either of the other two family members I lost this year. I knew them both and mostly had positive regard for them. I know there are people who were much closer to them and are probably dealing with very dark days right now. With everything else going on in 2020, it really is a strain to also lose someone you love, even if they didn’t die of the “plague” that is COVID-19.

But if, by chance, the strain isn’t too rough, I don’t think it’s helpful to feel badly about that. Don’t feel ashamed for not feeling bad. Even if it seems like you should be grieving or mourning more than you are, your ultimate goal would be to get over the pain, right? So if you’re not feeling the pain, there’s no need to force it. Forcing it wouldn’t be a legitimate form of mourning anyway. Chances are, if the grief ever did hit with a vengeance, you’d still need to do the work that comes from getting over a loss.

There may come a day when the gravity of loss will hit one of us very hard. But, for now, maybe it hasn’t sunk in… or maybe we’ve already done our grieving, years ago, when the loss wasn’t permanent, but still felt acute. I know I went through a rough time when I realized that some of my family members, whom I had looked up to and loved very much, were not as wonderful as I’d assumed they were. I went through a kind of grieving when I saw them with adult eyes instead of a child’s eyes. And then I moved away, and the pain faded. When some of them passed away, my feelings ran the gamut. In every case, I was sorry that they had suffered. And I was grateful that the suffering was over. In every case, I was sorry that I would not see them again. And I was grateful that their problems were solved and that there’s a chance I might see them again on the other side… if there is one. Even if there isn’t another side, when it’s my turn to go, I won’t be any the wiser.

Death is a natural and inevitable part of life. We all go through it. Don’t ever let anyone else tell you your feelings are inappropriate. They’re just feelings, and there’s no right or wrong to them. They’re just how you feel, and you have the right to feel things authentically. I know there are some people who are very concerned about appearances and would judge another person for how “appropriate” their grieving process is. But it wouldn’t help anyone else for Bill or me to be falling apart with grief. My husband’s stepmother would not feel better, for instance, if Bill was beside himself with tears to the point at which he couldn’t function. She might think that would be “appropriate” and deferential, but the reality is, it wouldn’t make any real difference to anyone… least of all, the deceased. She wouldn’t feel any better to see Bill devastated by loss. Maybe they could commiserate from afar– maybe there would be a feeling of “solidarity”. But when it comes right down to it, the real process of grieving is mostly a solitary one. Your feelings are yours, and yours alone.

There’s no need to add to your own burdens by trying to feel grief or sadness that isn’t there because that’s what’s considered “appropriate”. I think we need to change our thinking about that, and stop shaming people for not acting in the ways we think are “normal”. Who decides what is “normal”, anyway?

Well… that about does it for my Sunday message. I’m going to dive back into The Crown, take a shower, and maybe brush up on my guitar skills. Enjoy your day.

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family, memories, musings

The Heavenly Thanksgiving Party…

Thanksgiving has historically been my favorite holiday. For years, I loved it because it meant going to my Granny’s house, hanging around my mostly fun extended family, seeing the mountains of Virginia, and eating good food. Then afterwards, we’d have a party. There are a lot of musicians in my family, so on Friday after Thanksgiving, there was typically dancing and live music. I remember a few post Thanksgiving Friday night “hops” over the years that were real “barn burners”. Almost every year, for as long as I can remember, there’s been a big Thanksgiving family reunion party at Granny’s. It was something we could all count on, except for a couple of exceedingly rare years when it didn’t happen. 2020 is one of those years.

I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving since 2014. I went there to sing at my dad’s memorial service, which was held over Thanksgiving so more people could come to his memorial. He actually died in July 2014. Since then, a lot more people have passed away, but living in Germany has kept me away from home for their funerals. Some deaths have hurt more than others.

I’m not a very religious person, but I do like to think that Heaven is a real place. I imagine my cousin Karen, who died on Saturday, arriving in Heaven, being greeted by long lost loved ones like her parents and our grandmother. I think of my Aunt Jeanne and Uncle Bob waiting by the Pearly Gates, ready to embrace her and lead her to see Granny, who passed away in 2007.

I love Rhonda Vincent’s music… even when she sings about Jesus. I picture the Homecoming kind of like this.

I like to think of the arrival of a new soul in Heaven as a big party, like the ones we had years ago at Granny’s house, when everyone was still young enough and healthy, and wanted to stay up visiting. My mom would have a couple of drinks and get on the organ and play with my Uncle Brownlee’s band. Or my Uncle Steve would play trombone. There was a lot of dancing and singing and drinking too much… Maybe that’s what homecoming was like for Karen and my other relatives. Maybe they’re all sitting around a big table, as if they’re waiting for more people to join the party up in Heaven.

Actual footage from one of our Thanksgiving parties… That’s my niece dancing with one of my cousins. I’m pretty sure the music was live, too. It usually is.

I picture my Aunt Nance serving turtle cheesecake that has no calories. I picture my Uncle Kenneth sitting at the table telling stories with my Uncle Carl and his wife, Aunt Betty. I think of my Aunt Susan, who died in 1962, healthy and making up for lost time with her brothers and sisters who have finally passed the bar. I think of my Uncle Brownlee playing organ while my dad nods along approvingly. I think of Granny and Pappy looking on adoringly. No one is drunk or angry or being obnoxious. Everyone is having a great time, just like we did at so many Thanksgiving parties over the years… and they’re all waiting for the rest of us to arrive.

Thanksgiving 2014. A number of the people in this picture are no longer with us. They’re at the Heavenly Thanksgiving Party.

Then I start thinking about all of the people I’ve found as I’ve searched our genealogy. I wonder if they’re at the party, too. Will I somehow know my ancestors in Heaven? What about people I’m related to by marriage? What about Bill’s dad, who died just nine days ago? Somehow, I think if Heaven exists, he’ll be there. Because anything is possible in Heaven, right? And there will be no worries about not enough bathrooms, cleaning up the mess the next day, lack of parking spots, or paying for anything. There will be room at the table for everyone; everyone will be heard and appreciated; and there will be no talk about politics or controversy. And no one will be sneakily taking any unflattering photos, either. 😉

Me and my sisters in 2014… this picture was taken by my cousin, Karen, who just passed away a few days ago.

My Uncle Brownlee was probably my favorite relative. We had a lot in common. His birthday was the day after mine and we shared a love for music and off color humor. He died in 2019. I couldn’t be at his funeral due to the logistics. Now that we have COVID-19, it’s even harder to go home. And even if we were in the United States, people would probably shame us if we tried to have a gathering this year. In fact, attending Thanksgiving with a bunch of relatives on Earth might hasten our own arrivals at the Heavenly Thanksgiving Party.

I don’t think about God as much as a lot of my relatives do. Some of my people are super Christian types. They don’t curse and they go to church a lot. They figure cursing offends God. Personally, I think if God is as perfect as people claim, S/he (does God have genitals?) is probably above being offended. Being offended is a human thing. I don’t think God is human. Humans aren’t perfect. I’d like to think that God is nothing but wisdom, kindness, and love, but that’s probably too simplistic of a description. The fact is, I can’t imagine God, although I’m not quite at a point at which I don’t believe in God. But even if there is no such thing as God or Heaven, I do think that concept has inspired a lot of people to do incredible things. And that’s mostly a good thing. On the other hand, the concept of God has also inspired some pretty horrible things, too… albeit for very flawed human reasons.

Granny’s house… it’s been the family homestead since the 1930s.

Anyway, as Thanksgiving approaches, I am picturing my long lost relatives, all of whom loved being together on Thanksgiving (I presume, anyway), and enjoying the holiday up in Heaven, eating, drinking, laughing, singing, dancing, and visiting, with no worries about anything. They could have that Heavenly Thanksgiving Party forever, if they wanted to. Because Heaven is a perfect place, where there’s no suffering. Or, if they hated parties on Earth, maybe they’re somewhere they loved to be. Sitting by a quiet, rushing brook in the most beautiful place, with nothing but the company of beloved pets… actually, that sounds more like Heaven to me. Ditto if I’m surrounded by books and music and maybe enjoying the company of my favorite person, Bill.

Maybe this perfection doesn’t exist. Maybe death just means cessation of life. In that case, it means there’s no more pain or problems. That’s not a bad thing for the person who’s gone. It’s bad for the people who miss that person, left here on Earth, stuck in a cumbersome body that eventually fails for everyone. But eventually, everybody gets an invitation to the Heavenly Thanksgiving Party. Or so I’d like to believe. And I find it comforting to think of my relatives and friends enjoying their time at the Heavenly Party, waiting for the rest of us to join them in the fun.

As for our 2020 Thanksgiving celebration, it promises to be as quiet and peaceful as the last five have been. We’re just not going to cook. This year, we’re ordering a Thanksgiving takeout meal from a restaurant. It makes sense– less cleaning up and leftovers, and we do our part to keep the restaurants going until we can get a vaccine against the dreaded COVID-19 virus. I expect our 2020 Thanksgiving will be much like our anniversary was yesterday… kind of boring in some ways, but extraordinary in others. Bill’s daughter wished us a happy anniversary yesterday and even sent us a gift. Up until a few years ago, I never thought she would speak to Bill again, let alone acknowledge our anniversary. So even though our 2020 celebration had no naked dips at Irish Roman baths or palatial accommodations, it was remarkable just the same. We had originally planned to see Keb’ Mo’ in concert in Mainz. Naturally, that concert has now been rescheduled twice, thanks to COVID-19. I expect we’ll still be here when it finally does occur… at this point, in September 2021.

The featured photo is my dad and his mother… looks like maybe it was taken at my sister’s wedding, which was also a pretty epic celebration at Granny’s house. My dad died just seven years after he lost his mother, so they probably had a pretty awesome reunion in 2014.

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musings

“I know just how you feel…” uh, no you don’t.

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.

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