Last month in Lessons from Danny I wrote about embracing the present. So naturally on Thanksgiving the universe decided to see if I practice what I preach. I had rented a beach house for my family. Thanksgiving morning we packed up the car: three adults, two dogs, and a full turkey meal. The drive there was beautiful; a sunny day with no traffic. Before checking into the home, we walked along the boardwalk with the warm sun shining down. Filled with optimism, I thought, “This is going to be a wonderful trip”. Then we arrived at the home to see two cars parked in the driveway…
I’ll spare you the details of angry exchanges and tears and summarize as this: the house was being used by another family. First I thought it was double booked. Then I realized I had booked the house for the WRONG week. Luckily we found a hotel for the night that accepted dogs (those with pets understand what a feat that is). The hotel gave us plasticware and we heated up our turkey dinner in the microwave.
I was devastated. Our room was next to a loud couple who argued throughout the night, their voices only overshadowed by dogs barking. I couldn’t sleep. All I could think was, “This is not how it was supposed to be”. In an attempt to get out of my funk, I wrote down what I was grateful for – a warm place to sleep, a warm meal, my parents still speaking to me after my colossal screw up. But it didn’t help. Yes, I was grateful for those things – but I wanted the beach house. My feelings of gratitude couldn’t hold up to the weight of my disappointment. Normally one would call it a night but me and my social work brain had to analyze what I was feeling. That’s when I began to think about grief and loss…
Isn’t that how loss happens? One minute you’re full of optimism, and then you arrive at the occupied house. You’re going through life as expected and then you get word of a loss. Your reality is shattered. Your concept of time is divided between before and after you got the news. Suddenly that time of your "life before" seems so majestic, so foreign; and it is all that you want back.
To be clear: I am not equating my Thanksgiving situation with the experience of the loss of a loved one. But the fact that my list of gratitude could not ease my feelings for something so miniscule reminded me just how difficult it can be to withstand the disappointment, sadness and violation of losing someone you love.
Yes, gratitude is extremely beneficial. But endorsing gratitude also comes with a responsibility to clearly explain what gratitude is not. And that is this: Gratitude is not a replacement for the process of grief.
When grieving, one can be grateful for many things and at the same time have a loss that they are not grateful for - because how could you be grateful for loss? When grieving, gratefulness and UNgratefulness can co-exist. Being ungrateful for a loss should not imply that a person is not happy for what they do have. And in exchange, being grateful for what one does have does not erase the pain, sadness etc. that one experiences with a loss.
Yet that is one tactic us consolers take – encouraging to see good in life and what remains. “It could have been worse”. “Be grateful that they are no longer suffering”. This doesn’t erase the fact that the suffering occurred. And it doesn’t bring back the loss which that person is not grateful for. Encouraging gratitude can evoke guilt that the grieving person is not being “thankful enough” at a time when they do not need to justify their feelings.
Megan Devine an author on grief so poignantly wrote, “Somethings in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried”. Imagine grieving a death as carrying a sack of bricks on your back. The only way those bricks could be removed is if that person who died came back.
So what can you do as a consoler?
You acknowledge the bricks. If I was carrying a sack of bricks on my back I sure hope someone would acknowledge them.
You support them through it. You can’t grieve for someone, but you can offer your support. “I realize there is nothing I can do or say to make this better, but I am here to support you through it” – This is simply acknowledging the truth.
In time, they learn to cope with the weight. But it constantly changes; one day the bricks feel less heavy, some days they weigh more. Some days they don’t want to talk about the bricks; other days it is all they can think about. The brunt of the weight may not hit them until a month or two later. Don’t assume that the weight progressively gets lighter.
You can’t carry the bricks, but you can help with tasks so that they can save energy for this heavy load. You can prepare a meal, clean the house, take their kids for a day. But your offers must be direct – the grieving person may not have the energy to delegate. They may decline your offers and that is okay. Their hands may be too full to write responses. Make sure messages include permission to not respond: “no need to write back, just want you to know I am thinking of you, but if you do want a space to talk I am here”. Initially they may not want to talk, months later they may be ready and wishing someone would offer to talk once again.
Maybe their loss occurred back in April; don’t assume that the bricks are now lighter. The weight can seem much heavier around the holidays. Know someone who suffered a loss in recent years? Reach out to them. Carrying a load that feels heavy? Reach out to those around you. You may not be able to share the bricks you carry, but you deserve support on your carrying-journey. And remember, gratitude is a wonderful practice – but it should not diminish your right to grieve.
Oh, and always double check reservation dates.