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.
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.)