What to do . . .

by Guest Blogger

(David Corbett is someone I’ve known and respected for years. A couple of weeks ago, he was so moved by some of the posts here, that he asked if he could contribute a message close to his heart. I am certain everyone here at the ‘Rati can benefit from David’s personal experience and wisdom.
Pari)

 

If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call.

This is the sentence most people who are grieving from a devastating personal loss, or suffering through a crisis, hear over and over and over and over. It is almost always well-intended. Unfortunately, it also reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what the person is going through.

In this country, where individual initiative, responsibility, stoic resilience and good-natured optimism are so prized, one seldom feels as unattractive, unworthy, uninteresting and burdensome as when withstanding some personal crisis or struggling through a terrible loss.

The sorrow is so disorienting, the rage so unpredictable, the numbness so leaden—while the rest of the world quite rightly goes on about its daily business—that one comes to think that the best thing to do is hide away. You feel like a raw and suppurating wound. You can’t imagine anyone wanting to waste time with you and you don’t blame them. You’re sick of yourself.

So if someone tells you that, if you need anything, just call, they’re missing the point on two scores. One, you have no clue what you need, except for this part of your life to end. And you wouldn’t dream of asking anyone for anything—the imposition feels obscene. Why stain anyone else’s life with your pathetic relentless misery?

As a friend, you need to instead do something. Stop by with food, for example. Nothing was more valuable to me after my wife died than a neighbor’s bringing frozen dinners she’d prepared that I could microwave if I finally did recover my appetite. Everything tastes like sand, cooking feels too intimate, too laden with memories of shared meals—and so having someone else bring food is a surprising grace note.

As odd as it may seem, providing help with chores is also incredibly helpful. My friends came by and helped me one weekend in the garden. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.

And of course just stopping by. Or calling. Or sending a card.

The problem is, we feel as though we’re imposing, violating the chapel of our friend’s sorrow. Well, yeah, you may be doing just that. But the tendency of someone going through a terrible ordeal is toward isolation, and that’s just unhealthy. You have to be willing to risk being a bother, a nuisance, a nag, and accept criticism or irritability if that’s the case. Apologize, discreetly withdraw. Your love for the person and hers or his for you will survive such things. You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to show up at the wrong time, you’re going to stay too long, you’re going to say the wrong thing and offer the wrong help and blunder in who knows how many other ways. Get over yourself. Give up on perfection. Grief is the realm where perfection vanishes forever. You’re not going to be a perfect friend. You’re just going to give as much as you can and try to sense when enough is enough, it’s time to go. And there is no smart little guidebook for that. You will simply have to pay attention, open your heart, trust your instincts. And be willing to mess up.

Don’t leave it up to the person going through the ordeal to decide for you what the right thing to do is. That’s abdicating your responsibility as a friend. It’s putting your fear of doing or saying the wrong thing ahead of genuinely caring. Be willing to enter with him or her into this new world, where nothing is right, all the cues are mistaken, and simply putting one foot in front of the other borders on the miraculous. If you can do that, share the devastation and give up on being the perfect pal, be willing to accept some hard feelings if you cross the line (understanding that you cannot be spared anger, you cannot be spared the feeling of not having enough to give, not in this situation), you’ll offer a gift of genuine friendship and concern. You will have shown yourself willing to understand what it means to enter a world where nothing is right, at least not yet. That’s courage. That’s love.

David Corbett has published four critically acclaimed novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, and Do They Know I’m Running? His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Best American Mystery Stories 2009. Visit him at www.davidcorbett.com

(Pari here: I’ll be around today — as will David from time to time — so please, let us know what you think. I know that so much of what he writes here is absolutely true. Grief is incredibly nonlinear. The friends I remember most from those times in my life were often people at whom I raged the loudest. But they stuck by me and it made all the difference in the world. David’s message today gives each one of us a small roadmap to help those we love.)

38 thoughts on “What to do . . .

  1. Chris Hamilton

    This is a wonderful post and gives me a lot to think about. My protagonist is a recent widower, so it helps me think about his state. But also about relating to people in this situation. It’s kind of hard, because you can’t fix it. Maybe just being there is as close to fixing it as you can get. Maybe.

    Reply
  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David, and welcome to Murderati

    Well said – all of it. When some friends of ours were involved in a really bad motorcycle accident a few years ago, I went in and ran their office for them. The company was just the two of them, so otherwise it would have closed, but having to answer the phone and tell people – their friends as well as strangers – what had happened, is something that has stayed with me.

    Reply
  3. Vicky McAulay

    I am fortunate that I have not lost anyone close to me. And so, when a friend losses someone, I struggle to empathize not really understanding their grief or its depth. This has given me a glimpse into their world of pain. I’ll know better in the future how to react and help.
    Thank you.

    Reply
  4. billie

    Last Monday a very good friend and colleague of my husband’s was rear-ended by a tractor trailer and rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. He never regained consciousness, and died on Thursday. Two close friends of his created a Facebook group and a Caring Bridge website for him so friends and extended family could stay up to date with his condition and it’s been amazing to see the outpouring of love and light to his family and to one another – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.

    There was group prayer and intentions, coordination of help for the immediate family, sharing of stories and photographs, and at some point the family of the truck driver came to the FB page and expressed their grief and condolences and were assured there was no anger at the truck driver, who lived, and yesterday he expressed his own grief over the accident.

    And joy when G’s wife let everyone know that his organ donations saved 5 lives, gave sight to 2 people, and helped 200 more with tissue donations.

    It has been a real lesson in love seeing what began as a shock and tragedy evolve into a celebration of a life well lived. The ripples are still moving outward.

    Reply
  5. pari noskin taichert

    Chris,
    You’re right about just being close. I remember friends who’d come sit with me, that’s all, just be there.

    Zoe,
    What an incredible kindness you showed your friends. Really. That was extraordinarily kind and helpful, the kind of thing you’d never think to ask for . . . but is essential.

    Reply
  6. pari noskin taichert

    Vicky,
    This post IS helpful for that.

    One thing I thought of this morning was about FOOD. When my mother died, everyone and their sister brought food. It was wonderful. BUT also too much. We couldn’t possibly eat it all. So, if you bring food, consider bringing something that IS or CAN BE FROZEN. That would be a tremendous help.

    I write this because I remember some days life –everything — just seemed like it was too much. Having to deal with cleaning out a fridge became a monumental task.

    Reply
  7. pari noskin taichert

    Billie,
    I am so sorry to hear about your friend. The fact that the tragedy was transformed, in part, into a celebration — into something good — is important. But I bet his wife still feels those moments of dark pain, of incomprehension. The same is probably true for his friends, including you.

    Bittersweet.
    Your example is a perfect explanation of the word.

    Reply
  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    David….thank you for this. I’m going to re-read it throughout the day. These are words I need to hear, actions I need to learn.

    Reply
  9. Robert Gregory Browne

    David, I can see that your opinion comes from a very deep personal experience, and I know your words are heartfelt and certainly true for you. But they aren’t necessarily true for everyone.

    I think the very point of telling someone to "call if you need anything" is to both offer assistance AND space, leaving the decision up to the person grieving. And that IS who the decision should lie with.

    The desire for isolation in such circumstances isn’t necessarily unhealthy. Having been through periods of deep grief myself, and around others who have gone through it, I can say that in my own personal experience such isolation can not only be healthy, but can also be healing.

    The truth is, we can only recover from grief through the force of our own will. We must ultimately come to terms with the loss alone — that’s just the way it is — and while acts of kindness and concern can certainly help us, that final threshold can only be crossed (if it ever is) alone. It is in those moments that we can not only truly be in touch with ourselves, but can speak privately to the one we’ve lost and cry or scream or curse with impunity.

    But it DOES help to know that someone is there — not intruding by suddenly popping up at your door with a pot roast — but making themselves available in case you need to talk, to cry, or be consoled.

    If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call is a gesture and promise of support. One that I, personally, have fully appreciated in times of grief. It let me know that people CARE. And that, for me at least, goes a long way toward helping me heal.

    Reply
  10. pari noskin taichert

    Cornelia,
    Yeah. You see why I thought it’d be a good idea just to run David’s piece rather than turn it into an interview or something else. It speaks loudly and well.

    Stephen,
    Read the comments too. I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of good info here too.

    ONE OTHER THING:
    I remember getting hundreds of condolence cards and letters. The ones that meant the most, the ones I kept, are those in which people who knew the family members I loved wrote something personal about them — a memory of a funny moment, a word of wisdom uttered long ago, a goofy anecdote.
    I cherished those.

    But I also remember feeling incapable of answering all of those cards and letters myself, just couldn’t bring myself to do it. My sister and a few friends stepped in to help me, Now when I send a card, I always put in something like: "No need to respond." AND I mean it!

    Reply
  11. pari noskin taichert

    Wow, Rob.
    I’m glad you presented a different view of it. I know I reacted like David did through the four major times of loss in my life.

    I needed to know that people were there but not that they somehow expected me to reach out — or that I’d even know how to reach out — when I was ready for help/companionship.

    I think that’s the thing about grief, it’s not predictable. David’s post offers some tools to those who might not know how to deal with the situation.

    YOUR comment brings an important perspective as well. Thank you.

    Reply
  12. Allison Davis

    Start the morning by making me cry, obviously a raw nerve there. David, always lovely to see you whether at Izzy’s or on Murderati, eloquent and direct.

    This is fabulous insight and something I learned the hard way…wasn’t until I was on the receiving end that I could see how valuable it is when someone just comes and does for you and doesn’t hear you protest.

    Most recently, after my divorce, I felt all those things you typically feel after a divorce, worthless, a failure, unloved, and I was still in the same house, and felt I didn’t belong there, didn’t belong anywhere. I remarked to my sister that I didn’t even feel comfortable in my own home. She gathered all my girlfriends and did what we have now dubbed "the smudge party." They arrived with champagne and sage smuges, smoking out all the rooms, throwing salt in the corners, and pouring bubbly. In other words, they made up a ritual to show their love for me (really hard to write this still) and to make the house mine. While not a horrible tragedy, still an example of friends pulling you out of a dark hole. I would never have allowed it had they asked but loved them all incredibly for it.

    The same when my mother was dying…I have tried to pay it forward and I thank you for articulating this so well.

    Reply
  13. David Corbett

    Robert: I don’t think anything I said was meant to suggest there is just one way to help the grieving, or that one should bowl them over with self-serving concern. I agree with Pari, being inundated with food or cards can also be a strain. I remember my wife weeping because she couldn’t muster the energy while undergoing chemo to respond to all the well-wishing cards and letters. But I also know how much they meant to her.

    What I was trying above all else to say is there is no right way to go about caring for someone in a crisis. One must trust one’s concern, reach out, and be aware of the response from the person who’s afflicted. One must be willing to make mistakes, including incurring bristling responses from a friend who, on this or that occasion, needs his "space."

    As for the grieving person taking responsibility for their own recovery: I remember that people were expecting me to call them when I needed anything and I simply couldn’t muster the will, or believe that they really wanted to bother with the psychological and emotional black hole I’d become. And so I didn’t. And they figured I was fine. And I wasn’t. Not by a long shot, though I ultimately crawled out of my pit and resumed a place among the living.

    What I’m trying to get at is a simple truth: be aware as you’re trying to be concerned. And being aware includes an understanding that someone may simply be unable to tell you what they want or need. It may also oblige an understanding that, as you say, they need space.

    I think, however, an over-emphasis on giving people space neglects the fact that the space can be an abyss. And sometimes all it takes is a friend reaching out to reclaim one from its edge.

    David

    Reply
  14. Robert Gregory Browne

    Pari, as with anything in life, different people react to grief in different ways. And when we’re outside that grief, there’s no way for us to know how the person we care about might be reacting.

    So, to my mind, the offer to be there for them — just a phone call away — is probably the best and most sincere offer you can make.

    Those who are closer to the individual will undoubtedly SHARE in his or her grief, and it’s probably up to them to judge how they should respond in a more intimate way.

    I don’t think those who say "call me if you need anything" are failing to understand what the person is going through. They just don’t know what THAT particular person needs, so they respond in the only way they truly can.

    Reply
  15. Robert Gregory Browne

    David, I don’t think we’re necessarily disagreeing here, I just wanted to offer another perspective. I appreciate what you’ve been through and your desire to express yourself.

    My father died when I was twenty years old, and the truth is, there was no gesture that could truly pull me out of that abyss. I isolated myself emotionally and sometimes physically, and I’m sure the people around me sometimes wondered if I had turned into a complete prick. I spent a month wearing sunglasses everywhere I went because I didn’t want anyone to see my pain.

    And while I truly appreciated the concern and care of those around me, I ultimately had to pull myself out of that abyss and move on. Sometimes I slip back into it, especially when I have good news to share and the one person who would truly have understood and appreciated it is not here to share it with me.

    But I cannot fault you for finding your own way through your grief and wanting to share your experience with others.

    My only point is that it’s an individual thing, and I felt the need to let those who do simply say "call me" are being helpful to many of us.

    Reply
  16. pari noskin taichert

    Rob and David,
    I think you’ve both expressed it eloquently: grief is an individual thing.

    But so many people haven’t experienced it and don’t have a clue how to help someone they love. This post and the comments with it give some clues. C’est tout.

    Reply
  17. JD Rhoades

    Fascinating set of perspectives here. People really do deal with grief in different ways, and as a friend, it’s hard to tell which way to go. And that leads to that helpless feeling that anything you do might be wrong. One person might appreciate you weeding the garden; another might resent it because working in the soil is what they do to heal. The problem’s compounded by the fact that the person in mourning may not be able to articulate what they want.

    But (microwavable) food’s always a good thing. They’ve got to eat sometime.

    Reply
  18. David Corbett

    Robert:

    I know that prison of grief. And you’re right, I had to get out of that cell by myself. (Your statement about the sunglasses really got to me. A way of showing concern in reverse: Stay Away. I’m Radioactive.)

    And you’re also right that saying: Call if you need anything, I’m here, ready to come anytime, anyway, is an incredible show of support and concern.

    But I also remember "Call if you need anything" being tossed off over a shoulder as someone fled, hoping to God I never picked up the phone, because the depth of my sorrow and incapacity — and rage — scared the living crap out of them. (I don’t blame them, in retrospect, though as a friend who endured the murder of her brother once told me: People have to realize you’re going to be insane for a year.)

    But we do agree: There is no right way, nothing more than death throws you up against the wall of the incomprehensible present, the lack of any rhyme or reason to anything. But love can enter that space if it’s done with an open eye as well as an open heart. I don’t recommend barging in, but showing up can, if the time is right, be an incredible grace note in a world that has come to seem lacking in any such thing. I’m sure, as you were grieving for your father, a kind remark from a waitress or a stranger at times felt as intimate as a kiss, and as welcome. Other times, you couldn’t find a solitude impenetrable enough.

    I think that’s what we’re both trying to say. The weather of grief is stormy and unpredictable. Ultimately, we have to steer our own boat back to shore. And if someone else tries with an honest and open heart to guide us to the mooring, it’s welcome, whether they simply let us know they’re ready to swim out to help us, or actually dive in.

    David

    Reply
  19. Robert Gregory Browne

    David — I certainly know about the "tossed over a shoulder" kind of response. When someone very close to me went through a long, drawn out and very devastating loss, she was abandoned by friends who just couldn’t handle the situation. And, frankly, I do blame them. If they were real friends, they would not have fled.

    But as Pari says, it’s difficult for those who have never experienced such grief to know what to do. I’m here to say that the worst course of action is to run.

    But then, if you truly care about someone, that’s the last thing you would consider doing.

    Reply
  20. Judy Wirzberger

    My cousin was murdered when he was 36. After about 6 months, my aunt said, “No one ever mentions his name. It’s like he didn’t exist.”

    Until she said that, I didn’t realize the need some have to talk about the one they loved. I wanted to “take her mind off” her loss until I realize that sometimes, not always, but sometimes, a person in grief needs to relive the grief, accept the pain, and sharing sometimes makes it a lighter burden.

    And don’t forget. Everyone gathers in the first month of a loss and then one by one they drift away. The loss continues, and the grief is often a heart scratch away. Offer concrete suggestions.
    “I want to see (name of a movie). Could you keep me company?”
    “I’m yearning for lunch at (name of restaurant). Can you go with me next Thursday?”

    Grief is personal and so is friendship

    Reply
  21. David Corbett

    Judy:

    Spot on. The problem with deep grief is that you continue mourning as others resume their lives. It’s nobody’s fault, everyone feels his or her grief differently. I remember wanting to talk about Terri long after everyone else felt a little uneasy about it — or uneasy with the intensity with which I wanted to talk about her. And like you, they probably thought they were helping. And in a way, they were: They were reminding me that grief can be self-indulgent, a sentimental trap, and Terri would no more want me to be mired in it than I wanted her to die.

    I think we’ve all been saying the same thing: be concerned, but be aware. There’s no right way and no plan. It’s ironic, but grief and loss teach us how to live. If only the lesson were easier, but that’s not the way it works.

    David

    Reply
  22. pari noskin taichert

    Judy,
    You’re so right. Except I’d say that people often think that grief ends with the memorial/funeral service.

    Today, I’m going to our favorite bakery. While I’m there, I’m buying an extra loaf of bread for someone whose mom died about a month ago. Just going to put it on the porch for our friends for when they get home. Just a little something to let them know that we’re still thinking of them and understand that the pain doesn’t go away quickly at all.

    Reply
  23. anonymous

    This has all made me very sad. I can’t stand the frightening helplessness when faced with inevitability. The not knowing what to do or say and the knowing that nothing will make any difference anyway. I am a hider. I slither into my dark hole and wait for the crying to stop. It doesn’t really. It just becomes silent.

    My friend’s husband died 10 years ago when he was 51. She still misses him terribly. We hoist a glass to him often and tell stories of the outrageous things he used to do and we weep and then smile and keep him alive and involved in our conversation for another day or so. It helps us both.

    Off topic: David? Do you still moderate that book group in Benicia?

    Reply
  24. toni mcgee causey

    My father-in-law died early last Monday morning. He’d had Alzheimer’s, but, we did not realize, had also had pancreatic cancer, which made him spiral much faster downhill than just the Alzheimer diagnosis would have suggested, so the sudden change was shocking to us. The final week before in the hospice was devastating to watch.

    Neighbors came over to house-sit while we were at the wake and then the funeral the next morning. Friends came with food (I think they coordinated amongst themselves) and had it ready for when we got back and then stayed and had everything cleaned up. I cannot tell you how much I appreciated how self-sufficient they were in my kitchen–they didn’t ask me questions, they just found stuff and did what they needed. We hadn’t fully realized how many people would be coming back to our home that day and I was in no way prepared for them.

    And I wanted to say a word or two about hospice… these people who work there are worth their weight in gold. But in addition to them, the people who dropped in with munchies and just checked to see if anyone there needed something. When the doctor keeps telling you, "any minute now," you don’t want to leave to go wash clothes or pick up toothpaste because you’ve run out. And you don’t really want to leave to eat (though they did bring hospital food). People dropped off things like cupcakes and brownies and carrots and dip. People dropped off books.

    Books. At hospice. What an absolutely wonderful thing.

    I have to echo both David and Rob… I cannot tell you how much it has meant to me over the last couple of weeks when people noticed I wasn’t online much and they just wrote to check in to see what was up. It also meant the world to me that the Rati folks jumped in and contacted Robin for a substitute for me yesterday.

    But if you don’t know what to do for someone grieving right away, wait a couple of weeks and drop by. Ask them to go somewhere. Bring over something frozen (like mentioned above) in small units so that parts can be thawed and not one large thing all at once. Offer to grocery shop or pick up quick items on your way home when you’re doing your own shopping. Just having someone at the grocery store who called to say, "by the way, I’m here, what do you need?" was a big help.

    Mostly… remember them. Ask them later. Talk about the person who passed, if you knew them. Offer some anecdote that you witnessed. Show those remaining that the person they loved, mattered.

    Reply
  25. Darwyn Jones

    David –
    I just read Pretty Little Parasite last night and was blown away. Really great. I re-read it, looking with how’d-he-do-that eyes.

    Then today I sign on to Murderati and read a post (admittedly without noting the author at first) that I relate to and appreciate.

    Thanks. For both.

    Reply
  26. Eika

    I’ve been lucky, so far. I haven’t suffered the loss of any friends or close family- just distant relatives and one pet (and that was traumatic enough!). But I know the pain.

    My closest friend went to Afghanistan yesterday. She’s an EMT in an area where they aim for EMT’s. She told me once that my weekly phone calls, when she was in basic training, were sometimes the only phone calls she got all month; hell, the only phone calls anyone in her unit of 100 women got each month. As long as I can make her laugh, I know things are okay.

    I don’t know if she has phone service over there. Or internet. And if she doesn’t have either, getting a postage address will be a chore. But I will. And until then, she can expect weekly calls and messages where I babble about the zombie fast-food business, or e-mails where I ask for information about bad-tempered camels. Because I can still do something, even if it’s not enough.

    Reply
  27. Shizuka

    If you’re the friend in this situation, you want to do too much rather than too little.
    RIsk being invasive – ultimately that’s a lot better than being cold.
    Or finding out later that your friend needed you.
    And if the person in mourning really has to hide away –
    they probably won’t even tell you about the death at all.

    Reply
  28. BCB

    Toni, I wrote you an email last night and then didn’t send it, convinced you were just busy writing and I shouldn’t disturb you. Now I wish I had. I’m so sorry for your loss and my sympathy to you and all your family. (hugs)

    I think it’s true that each of us handle devastating loss differently. The toughest part of dealing with grief, for me, was the overwhelming numbness. In order not to feel the pain, I just stopped feeling. Trouble is, you can’t pick and choose which feelings you shut down. It’s sort of an all or nothing kind of thing. You don’t feel the pain, but neither do you feel joy or happiness. You function, somehow, but you’re not living. For a very long time, I didn’t care about anything. And I didn’t understand at the time what I was doing and didn’t know how to make it stop. I couldn’t articulate what I needed and the people around me either didn’t know or were unable to help. It was awful.

    You can try to reach out a hand of friendship to someone going through that kind of thing and perhaps, like David said, your efforts will result in pulling someone back from the edge of the abyss. Then again, you’re just as likely to pull back a bloody stump, with the realization that that person will never forgive you for the intrusion. I like to think I would have grabbed hold and sobbed with relief if someone had reached out to me during that time. It was a very long lonely road back all on my own.

    I think being a friend means you risk the bloody stump. Left undisturbed long enough, there’s a very real chance that numbness will become permanent. At some point, you need to feel again, no matter how painful it is. That’s just my experience.

    I appreciate everyone who was willing to discuss this here.

    Reply
  29. Alexandra Sokoloff

    David, so beautiful and harsh, in the right way. This is so exactly what I needed to have confirmed, for a friend who’s going through this. Thank you. I will throw out my perfectionism, and risk being invasive.

    Reply
  30. Sara J. Henry

    Nearly two decades ago I took care of my father the last six weeks of his life – what helped the most afterward were the friends who were willing to listen to me. Just listen.

    Reply
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