My first real experience with loss was when my grandfather had to be hospitalized and then died after having a heart attack. It was the first funeral I attended. I wasn’t more than ten or eleven. I understood that he was really gone. We had family around and, as a child, I took it well.
Death touched our family several times, and in several posts I’ve talked about how I was affected by the different deaths that took place in my young life up until my early 20s. Forty years later I realize how sheltered I have been from grief and its realities. You don’t see the real stuff when you are young—I didn’t.
Several years ago, after observing how many people would respond to someone’s loss with “I’m so sorry,” I decided to use my Facebook page to conduct some nonscientific research. I asked people “Why do you say I’m so sorry?” and the response I got was “I don’t know what else to say.” This response saddened me.
As I’ve journeyed through the loss of my husband, I have noticed some things in ways that I’d let slide before. One hundred and eighty-three words into this post, I’m going to talk about what I’ve noticed and what it can do to those who suffer from grief and loss.
Death Is Out of the Home
I now live in The Netherlands. One of the huge differences here vs. the USA is that it is still common after death for the body to be viewed in one’s home. This isn’t always possible, but it still happens in many situations. Having attended such a viewing, my first thought was In the home!? My next thought was that by being in the person’s home and being with the loved ones, one could relax in his or her own surroundings as friends came by to show their love. By the end of my time there, it felt like a great way to mourn the death of a guy who kept us on our toes. It was peaceful and joyous. There were no “I’m so sorrys” said. We spoke of him and shared quietly. The Dutch are able to do this well.
My husband’s viewing was not in our home and it wasn’t even suggested that I hold it here. However, it was a wonderful experience. People who knew him came, and by the end of the evening, I was “high on really good chocolate.” Once again, the talk was honest and we laughed and I felt supported.
For some time (until I said “Stop”), people I knew brought me meals and it was wonderful. Then I told them that I needed to cook for myself and everything stopped. As long as they were cooking for me, they knew what to do and say, but after that. . .
Death moved out of the home to someplace else. Because of the trauma surrounding his death, I really didn’t pick up on what had happened in the way I might have. Slowly, people who didn’t know what to say, or do, moved or distanced themselves from me. They didn’t want to talk about Jon or hear me talk about Jon. The first year was hard, and over that year people drifted further away until by the end of the first year, I was more alone than I would have liked to have been.
Death Reorganizes Your Address Book
This is a fact, and it is something I’m coming to terms with as I live through year four of life without Jon. I think this is a complex issue. This is not just about knowing what to say, but also understanding how to kindle a solid relationship. I think we’re failing in this area.
One of the things I learned from one of my aunts was the value of real friends. She had one real friend. She and Dot had been friends for. . . forever, and even though they were separated geographically, they were very much in each other’s lives. They went through the good, the bad, and the ugly. Dot’s children were a real part of things as well, and when my aunt and uncle celebrated 50 years of marriage, Dot’s kids came! Like a really good marriage, Dot and my aunt Lois really worked at friendship. “I’m so sorry” was not uttered in that relationship. When Dot was diagnosed with a serious illness, words of comfort were exchanged.
I’ve often thought that maybe it was just a slower time. Maybe it has to do with the fact that you became friends with those in your immediate surroundings, and when they moved, you wrote or called them. Was there more social necessity to make relationships work so that they would last?
Maybe it is none of the above, or all of the above, and I’m not wanting to say that since the world has “shrunk,” and distances are smaller, we aren’t valuing things in the same way as we once did. I don’t want to blame social media for the demise of friendship. But, I have to admit that social media has affected the way we, as a world, interact with one another.
Yes, grief reorganizes your address book, and it does so because there are many people who don’t understand how to support such loss as death, divorce, illness, or other life events.
I’ve posted about what to say and do in the category “What Do I Say.” Yet this issue still gnaws at me. Why? My first thoughts are that people react to grief and loss in the way they want to be treated when it happens to them. It is as if all logic and reality blow out the window, and instead of saying anything, people say and do nothing. I got particularly angry about this in RAW (The Suicide). Has our social IQ dropped that much? Have we, as a society, drifted from understanding empathy that much? Brené Brown says it well in this video.
I think we’ve lost some of our ability to empathize. Maybe it has to do with the growing need to state our individual pain while forgetting about the pain of others. Therapists are in the business of pain. What I hear when I listen is the deep pain of others not being completely heard by those they feel should be hearing them. This thought causes me to recall a conversation with my husband’s psychiatrist and his ending remark to me: “You needed to be heard.” And I did need to be heard! His comment to me reminded me that with all the hearing and caretaking I was doing, I needed listening to as well.
As I look at hearing, and being heard, from the perspective of having or getting needs met, I can’t blame people for the lack of empathy. Here’s why: There are so many forms of grief and loss that to show proper empathy for all of them might not be possible.
I don’t know what it is like to come out as LGBTQ. I don’t know what it is like to have a miscarriage. I don’t know what it is like to have a child show hate for a parent. What I do know is that deep pain hurts, and that I can show empathy for others by tapping into places that are not so pleasant within my own life experiences that contain things I can use to empathize with. I might not understand perfectly, but I can understand. Sometimes that means doing a great deal of listening and then asking questions that will deepen my understanding of someone’s experience. I’m not expected to know it all; I’m expected to know that I can ask and learn.
When life was less expansive than it is now, we didn’t have the “experts” to tell people what was, and wasn’t, normal. The truth is that those thought of as “experts” now may, or may not, have known what to say. My aunt and her friend Dot had to rely heavily on empathy and questioning to really understand each other. They were present in ways that mattered because it meant something to both of them. So, maybe trauma as a whole rearranges address books because people think they have to know before they open their mouths and friendships are lost. Personally, I’d rather have someone say to me “I don’t know what to say and I’d like to say the right thing.” While this puts it back on me, it also opens up a pathway for me to say “Thank you” and “This is what I need.”
In saying all of the above, I must admit that writing this post has been a thoughtful challenge. Here is why: In conversing with several people, I’ve discovered that we really have lost the skill of empathy. The “I’m sorry for your loss” remark really is the best they can do. People are overwhelmed with all of their own stuff, and the balancing act of trying to support another person when you don’t have the skills to do it well causes you to shut down. It may also have to do with loneliness in our Western society.
Don’t hate me for saying the following because it is not something I wanted to say in this piece, but I’m finding that I have to say it: Social media has moved many people into a state of social detachment. What I mean by this is that people know how to react to a photo or meme, but they can’t, and don’t really have the skills, to thoughtfully react to substance in long form. Knowing this may mean that right now, as you read this, you may want to engage a wee bit more than the average. You aren’t looking just to “get in and get out,” and want to say you have really connected with a thought or an idea. Think about your own social media pages; what gets the response from you?
Facebook marketers tell you to use photos and limit words. Why? They’ve dumbed down for a faster pace. They’ve dumbed it down because people aren’t reading thoroughly.
Gaining Empathy Skills
In most healthy family situations, it begins at a very young age: “It’s mine” is followed by a parent saying “You must share.” Slowly, the young child learns the social graces that allow for becoming friends. By four years of age, a child has enough insight to answer the question “Do you like it when. . . ?” By the time a child enters school, the building blocks are laid for social connection, and those kids who have learned rudimentary skills in the first years of their tiny lives are ready to test their newfound skills on the larger stage. As the child grows into adolescence, the skills of childhood are put to the test as relationships deepen, friendships broaden, and exploration expands. By the time the 18-year-old enters the adult world, the lesson is done but the learning is just beginning.
Some of my most valuable learning came about from moving out of my parents’ home at 18 and going away to school in another city. On my own, I screwed up some relationships, but also had successful ones. I came to understand things as an adult that being under my parents’ roof could never have taught me. It was hard! When I returned to my hometown in late 1990, I’d had some disastrous and some good experiences. I’d built up some life experiences that would allow me to understand deeper feelings and understand in a credible fashion: things that I could use to empathize with others.
I share all of this to tell you: You get the skills by experiencing life. You gain empathy by blowing it, learning from it, and using the learning you acquire to reach out to others.
You discover empathy by finding a similar feeling or experience within yourself. You don’t share the experience, but rather you recognize the power of this experience and quietly listen in order to understand. You might have “been there, done that, and have the T-shirt,” but in this case you only mentally put that T-shirt on and remember how hard it was to get through the experience so you can empathize. It is then that the questions come and the understanding and connection follow. Now two people understand, by more than words, the experience that one is having. Empathy is a marvelous thing. No more empty “I’m so sorrys.”