I believe in comforting the grieving. It seems obvious. Those who lose someone are suffering. They need understanding. And love. But, in a society that is uncomfortable with death and dying, in which real community becomes less and less real, we are afraid. And in our fear, we often do nothing.
In February, after my dad’s death from leukemia, I felt the power of community. Family and friends descended upon my parents’ home in rural Pennsylvania. They came with casseroles, vegetable soup, bags of groceries. People came and sat and listened.
But a week later, when my husband, son and I returned to our home in Portland, Oregon, there was silence. A cold, empty house. Steel gray sky, rain. A pile of mail, mostly junk. Some cards and e-mails awaited us. But no visits or phone calls. For the most part, friends stayed away.
My husband and I asked ourselves why. Maybe it was because we’re not church members, like my parents. Or because we don’t live in a small town. Maybe, as modern urbanites, we’re too independent. Maybe it’s our generation. We didn’t know. All we knew was that we felt so alone.
When friends lost family members before this, I didn’t know what to do. I was uncomfortable and afraid. Sometimes I sent a sympathy card or dropped off a meal. But I never sat and listened. Too often, I did nothing at all.
The recent, painful loss of my dad has helped me to see my own ignorance. Of death and dying, of the process of grief. It has shown me the importance of comforting the grieving.
So, in the future, when friends lose a loved one, I will do something. Even if I don’t know the right thing to do. I will not say, “Let me know if you need anything,” because they will not tell me. I simply need to do something. Bring meals or groceries. Run errands. Watch children.
But most important, I will be present. Talking about the loss will not remind friends of something they’d forgotten. Friends will want me to acknowledge the loss – not act as if it never happened. They will want to tell their stories: the frustrations, disappointments, heartbreak. They will want me to be there. To listen. I will not ask if things are “getting back to normal” after a week or a month. They won’t be. And normal will be different, anyway.
It has taken me nearly forty years to learn this lesson. But now, I have learned. Comforting the grieving helps us to acknowledge that suffering is universal. As humans, we are connected by this suffering. And, during times of loss and grief, it is my hope that the community will descend upon all of our homes with casseroles and warm vegetable soup. That the community will sit with us and hear our stories. I believe we all deserve this. This comfort. This love.