The Etiquette of Grief

I’ve been contemplating this for a while, now. I have discussed it with friends and family, and yet, I still don’t know how to say any of this exactly right. I’ve just about come to the conclusion that, maybe, there is no “exactly right.” Also, as I began to type this, I realized just how complicated my feelings on this are.

2016 has been a rough year. Even as I type this, I am feeling a little bit guilty. There has been so much loss around our family this year. And yet, for all of that, I have been mostly on the periphery. Certainly, I’ve seen it, and felt it, in the way that something that is just there, suddenly is not. It’s like the big tree that used to mark the turn to my parents’ house. A large live oak tree, standing in the island of a divided highway, marking the turnoff to a backroad that was otherwise poorly marked (or unmarked altogether, if the local perennial pastime of stealing street signs was being exercised). And then, the tree was gone. Too many vehicle collisions. Too many years in exhaust fumes. Poor soil. Or maybe even the isolation from other trees wore it down. We were still able to find our street, of course, but the marker that had always been there was gone. It’s been gone many years, now, and that intersection still looks somehow naked. And I think that is a perfect analogy for how I am feeling this year. I miss that tree. Yet, I was not one of the birds or squirrels or other creatures that called it home. For me, it was just a signpost, but for others, it was a vital and concrete part of their lives. I miss it, but it was never my home.

There are not words to express to our friends and family how much I truly wish I could help you. I can’t make it better, though. I can’t become your home. I hope I can help, by not making it be worse than it has to be. There are a hundred thousand things that we do, everyday, that maybe we can take some of the burden of. And that is all I can do.

I am watching my friends and family struggle. They are worried about how their grief appears to others, and in some cases, are even being told (overtly and through hints) that their grief is illegitimate or too-long-lived.

Your feelings are legitimate. You are allowed to feel what you are feeling. You are homeless, now, without your tree, and you are allowed to grieve that loss as long as you need to.

But for all of the different kinds of loss that I’m seeing around me, and all the different ways I am seeing these people cope, or try to cope, I am hearing the same refrain – a worry that they are not doing it “right.” Do you feel like we are watching you, and judging you on the ways you are processing your loss? I’m sure you think we are watching every detail, from the words on the funeral program to the speed with which you clean your house to the day you go back to work.

You’re right. We are.

But it’s not because we think you are doing it wrong. It is because you are guiding us. There is no way to know how to do this, because we have not done it. There is no wrong way to mourn a loved one. There are no signposts. We are watching you, because we are wondering what we would do. What we will, inevitably, one day have to do.

For those who I have not supported as well as I should have: I did not understand. I still don’t fully understand. But much to my sorrow, I am learning. And I am sorry. I’m so, so sorry that I didn’t see. There are some lessons, I suppose, that we don’t want to learn, and so we simply don’t acknowledge that the lesson is being taught. And there are some things, that because they are scary, we willfully decide not to understand. Maybe that is part of maturing – learning the lessons that we never wanted to recognize.

There are those who are going to find this to be an alarming post, and worry that my thoughts are going to dark places.

But I am troubled by a coincidence that cannot go unremarked. My father-in-law passed six months ago. His family is wondering what the statute of limitations on grief are? How long can they be forgiven their sadness? An acquaintance’s husband passed two months ago. She is already getting implications that she should be moving on. This horrifies me. There is no cap. Nor should there be. That is one of the important lessons that I have learned, just recently.

If I have ever made you feel like you have passed the allowable limit on grief in the past, I owe you a profound apology. I had no right, and you are allowed to feel what you are feeling. No matter how long it’s been.

So many of you have taught me these lessons, some gradually over the years, and some who have hit me over the head with it like a proverbial frying pan. I thank you. And sincerely wish I had not only been better to you, but that there was a way to make things better for you.

I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught. – Winston Churchill

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