Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Time To Do Better

When you know better, you do better.
~ Maya Angelou

On death - we are ignorant.  On death - we become self-absorbed and insensitive.  On death - we deny it.   We are afraid.  We are exposed.  We are confronted.  We are ashamed.  We are confused.  We are resentful.  We are affected.  We are vulnerable.  We are powerless.  Who we are at our core shows up in death.  Death highlights our arrested development - - center-stage showcasing who we are, where we are, what we've got.  Death is inevitable.  We are not immortal - - yet we live in the neighborhood of make-believe, insistent to a misguided pretense that we are eternal of this physical life, that death does not occur, therefore we need not be informed how to deal with it.  We are not taught how to be with death.   We are not taught who to be with death.  We are not taught any etiquette of dealing with death;  the experience of loss, grief, how to behave, care for, what to say - - or not, what to do - - or not.  So we stumble and fumble, tripping over ourselves and others, perhaps pulling the blanket over our heads entirely or just make asses of ourselves because our ignorance of death and our denial of it is so profoundly exposed - - our ego is very embarrassed.   We are wounded, suffering and unprepared.

When I recently went home to Chicago to spread my late-husband's ashes (read That's a Wrap) and grieve the loss of our life together there (read posts:  Pilgrimage, Band-aid, Migration, Perspective, Gauntlet, S.S.B.B.) I began to keep track and subsequently lost count, of how many times I heard myself say in different conversations "we aren't taught how to deal with death," heads bobbing in agreement every time, "we are running around wounded, hurting and clueless because no one has taught us how do this shit.  We don't want to go there.  Yet here we are.   And we certainly don't want to admit our insecurity here or our vulnerability that we don't know what to do or how to do it.  Moreover, we're just as afraid to ask for help." 

My assertion here is based on experience.  My direct personal experience through the death of my husband  (read posts:  Oh My Man, Will You) that was also featured in this article, the emails and facebook messages I received from others sharing their own experiences, and the death of my friend's husband (read Too Familiar).  Upon reading author Aimee DuFresne's article today on the MindBodyGreen site, I was compelled to finish this piece and stand in solidarity with my fellow widow on her perspective and commentary on the stupid things people say to someone grieving.  At the same time however, I do defend we the people as a whole - - we simply don't know any better.   No one has taught us.   I know no one ever sat me down and said, "Shannon, someday you'll be married and your husband will die.  Here's what you need to know and what to do...".   I also know I never sat my now 31-year-old daughter down and said, "Darling daughter, someday, someone close to you will die, maybe even you mom's husband, here's what you must know..."   None of that ever - - ever happened.  It's called on-the-job-training and we're awful at it.  

I'll combine Aimee's 4th & 5th cliches - - for me that's how I've experienced or witnessed them - - as a mashup of ignorance and insensitivity - - typically from anyone who has no personal experience what so ever with losing a loved one, maxed out suppressing their own emotions of loss (I don't want to be around when that emotional volcano eventually erupts - - oh yes it will) or don't have experience with the same type of relationship.  My experiecing in being on the receiving end of the likes of, "Aren't you over it yet?  It's been X." has always come from someone who has not lost a spouse or doesn't even have one to lose.

I'm going to add a 6th cliche here:    "I know what you're going through."

No you do not.  Absolutely not.  No way.  Now how.  No.  The first time I heard this was from a woman who divorced her husband.  He didn't die, she divorced him.  The next time I heard this was from someone whose dog recently died.  Now don't get me wrong, while I'm not a pet person (read No Pets Allowed) I do empathize with the grief someone has in the loss of their pet, but pet and husband are 100% mutually exclusive - - unless of course you had intimate relations with your dog or mail addressed to your dog arrives in your mailbox everyday or you shared household responsibilities and bank accounts with your dog - - well then yes, you do know.  Humor aside, what is shared is the grief, but you still do not know my grief, you understand that I'm grieving, I've experienced a deep loss - - there's a distinct difference.  The optimal empathetic, compassionate things to say is, "I understand what you're going through."   

The only people who come close to knowing what I'm going through is a widow, someone who has lost her (or his) husband.  A widower comes close, because we do share the loss of our spouse.  But the woman who has lost her husband is in my opinion the only authorized person to say, "I know what you're going through."  Even she isn't an exact match.  Each person's loss is unique unto them, based on the relationship, the quality of that relationship, the length of the relationship, the circumstances surrounding the loss, the emotional stability and maturity of the surviving loved one.  No two people are an exact match in their grief. 

Please don't be shy that you don't what to say to someone who is grieving.  Openly state, "I just don't know what to say," or, "I can't imagine what you're going through,"  both are honest, sincere and compassionate response and for this widow very appreciated.  Like Aimee, I've been most comforted and admire when people simply say things like:

"I have no words."
"I am here for you however I can be."
"I love you.  You are loved."
"I'm so sorry you're hurting."
"My heart is with you."
"You are not alone." 

It's difficult for me to understand and accept that my grief over Boomer's passing will never go away.  Over time, my time, no one else's, it will find a permanent place to nestle.  The grief over the loss of my spouse is forever with me.  A sobering lesson I observed when I watched the documentary "Ethel" on HBO.  Youngest daughter, Rory Kennedy,  asks her mother about Bobby's death; Ethel pauses, tightens her lips, visibly becomes choked up and says she can't go there.  43 years later, Ethel's grief is still with her.  That moment resonated with me.

I lean into the wise words of Maya Angelou yet again (read Maya Called It), just as I did to call out on addiction/alcoholism, to assist me in articulating our social vulnerabilities and weaknessess.  Not out of hostility or malice, but fundamental fact, when it comes to the real tough stuff life brings our way - - we are all a hot mess.    Now's our time to know better, and do better.  I know I try.

Boomer 'n SMO Kona bound - 2009

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