by MIA FREEDMAN
Six weeks. That’s about the length of time after a tragedy when the shock subsides, the adrenaline wears off and reality sinks in.
Unfortunately, it’s also around the six week mark when – if the tragedy didn’t affect you directly – you kind of forget about it. You dropped over a lasagna. You sent flowers. You texted and maybe you even took time off work to attend the funeral. You shed tears and they were genuine.
But then your sympathy and altruism were swallowed by the demands of day to day life like quick sand. And things soon returned to normal. Well, for you they did.
Those at the centre of the tragedy are still tentatively patting themselves down after the explosion having staggered one or two steps down a road that stretches into forever. This is when they need the most support, right when most of their friends have filed the situation away under “Really Sad Things That Are In The Past”.
Partly, it’s because we want to believe they’re feeling better but we also feel helpless and uncomfortable, unsure how to help someone navigate their grief.
“After the “I’m so sorry’s” and “Here’s a lasagna” … people just don’t know what to say” says a friend who was bereaved last year. “So they say nothing. Or worse, they just move on and probably think ‘Well, she’ll just have to get used to her new reality’ … which is true to a point.”
In the days after a death, there’s a surprising amount to do. Funerals to be planned, eulogies to be written, people to notify. Administration. In the case of a shock diagnosis, there are decisions and medical appointments to be made. But as days become weeks, the activity subsides and the even harder yards begin.
“People tend to drift away at around the time you’re trying to work out how to function again in the world” says a friend who lost her baby daughter two years ago. “The initial deep shock has started to wear off and there you are … just floating along with no idea how to behave any more. You start to panic about boring people. About being depressing. A downer. God forbid. People desperately want to think you’re okay … maybe so you’re no longer on their ‘to do’ list to worry about. “
Grief is often a private affair that others cannot share or perhaps even understand, agrees Petrea King, author of Sometimes Hearts Have to Break and CEO of the Quest for Life Foundation. “Grief can spring out of drawers and cupboards, off shelves, from photographs, wafts to our nostrils upon a perfume, is precipitated by music, clutches at our heart, hollows out our insides and plummets us to the depths.”
We’re funny about grief. We like to think it’s finite and able to be quantified and quarantined. We like to talk about ‘closure’. We think we’re being helpful when we urge someone to ‘be strong’ or exclaim ‘you look so well!’ to a friend who’s sick or bereaved in the hope that it might just be true.
“About two months after we lost our daughter, I remember an elderly neighbour saying,‘Oh you look like you’re back to your old self,’” recalls my friend Rebecca. ” I looked at him in horror and then went inside and wept. How could I be communicating to people I was ‘okay’? I wasn’t okay! My baby died! So you’re always trying to find this balance between wanting the world to know you’re in deep mourning but not inconveniencing anyone.”
“Sometimes I worry I’m bringing it up too often,” admits another bereaved friend who is sinking after he unexpectedly lost a loved one earlier this year. “But it’s all I can think about and in some ways it’s worse now because I’m no longer buoyed by the wonderful flurry of support that held us up in the weeks after it happened.”
Rebecca told me of wanting to post something about her older daughter on Facebook six weeks after her baby girl was stillborn. “I was paralysed because I kept thinking “But what if people think that because I’m on Facebook, that I’m fine now?”
So what can we do to support our friends in the darkness? Talking to a number of bereaved people, they all say they feel they’ve been given a gift when someone speaks the name of the person they’ve lost. When they give them a chance to talk, cry, even laugh.
“It’s the small things that people do,” says the mother whose son died the day after he was born and who gave mourners at his funeral little bags of sunflower seeds to plant in his memory. “Like sharing photos of their sunflowers or letting us know that they keep photos of our son close by, even talking about their ‘nephew’ or ‘grandson’, saying his name….they’re all reminders that they care.”
Petrea King puts it so beautifully: “Grief is a strange beast that we learn to live with. We don’t get ‘over it’ as if it were a surmountable obstacle. We can become more comfortable with our discomfort but there is no finite time for grief as there is no finite time for love. “
How have you handled grief in your life?