I recently stumbled upon a piece by JD Bailey, a Huffington Post "Healthy Living" blogger, that completely summarized where I am in my head now that we are more than half a year past my dad's death:
Grief is uncomfortable. It is foreign. It is an ill-fitting garment that pinches you in all the wrong places. You can feel like you've shed it for a while, and then it can unexpectedly wrap you up like an unwanted sweater in July.
And because of this, it's hard to be around a person who is grieving. You don't know when she's going to break down and start sobbing while watching Chris Matthews, because he looks a little like her dad. Or because football season started, and her dad's not there for it. Or because it's Tuesday. And Tuesday is just another day without her dad.
[For the record, Chris Mathews is not a trigger for me. On his best days, Dad looked like Tom Brokaw. When he packed on a little weight: William Shatner (the "Boston Legal" version - not "Young Kirk"). When he packed on a LOT of weight: John Goodman in "Roseanne."
But, apparently, Bob Newhart is a trigger, on account of the facts that (1) my dad (also a Bob) had TV Bob's deadpan comedic delivery and (2) TV Bob was one of my dad's favorite television personalities. And so it was that the first time that I really, truly wept over my dad's passage (not those first tears at hospice, which were a combination of tears of disbelief, relief and - oddly - joy, because I was so grateful that his suffering had come to an end) was a few weeks ago during an episode of "Big Bang Theory." All it took was one particular turn of the phrase from Professor Proton, and the floodgates opened. It didn't help that TV Bob is visibly showing his age. (Spouse is on notice that, when TV Bob passes away, I will probably take it ridiculously hard - in a weird way, it will be like I'm losing Daddy Bob all over again.)]
Yes, being around the grieving is hard for anyone. But that's how you help a grieving friend. You suck up your own uncomfortable feelings and you are there for her. You are around.
My very best friend - Spouse - most definitely sucked it up during what we now refer to as my "Professor Proton Pity Party." He has been there before: we lost his dad, very suddenly, when the Little Kid was a toddler (seems like yesterday, but we will hit the eight-year mark next spring), so Spouse is a more senior member of what another, similarly situated friend astutely refers to as "a really s***ty club that no one wants to join." I remember at the time of his dad's death desperately wishing that I had a frame of reference for what he was experiencing, because I felt that I was doing an entirely inadequate job of "being there" for him. It didn't help that I, too, was grieving the loss of a father-in-law who over a span of twelve years had become like a real dad to me. I felt guilty for mourning him myself - after all, he wasn't my dad, at least not in the biological sense. Was Spouse angry at me for grieving alongside him? Gratified? I finally asked, and he assured me that it was the latter.
Now we have been in both positions: the grieving child, and the concerned spouse simultaneously grieving for a second father. We have a complete understanding of each other, and that understanding enhances our relationship. (We have joked for some time about divorce never being an option for us, because we know where all of the bodies are buried - a figurative statement that in our shared middle age has become literal as well.)
So, obviously, it's easy for Spouse to be part of the Suck-Up Squad - he has the requisite frame of reference, and, also, it's kind of his job to pick up the pieces when things go pear-shaped. (Seriously, a priest in Houston said so, seventeen-plus years ago. Okay, he didn't say "pear-shaped," but it would have been awesome if he did.) Likewise, fellow members of the Really S****ty Club have waded in, and on the Scale of Awesome they have blown "a theoretical priest saying 'pear-shaped' during a wedding ceremony" out of the water.
For awhile, I was confused, and more than a little hurt, by the fact that most non-RS Club members seemed to avoid the topic of Dad's death (and I'm talking the "never bring it up again after the day of the funeral" kind of avoidance). But then one day I had the epiphany:
it's hard to be around a person who is grieving.
Really, it's like walking into a minefield: if I ask her how she is doing, will she cry? Get defensive and bite my head off (my signature move when Dad was diagnosed with cancer the first time; I was nineteen, and I could not handle the idea of people caring that much for me)? If she blows off the subject, should I accept the blow-off, or should I push? How hard should I push?
Oh, Lord, what if I put my foot in my mouth?
Based on personal experience: I don't think that there's such a thing as saying the wrong thing. If you fumble, the only discomfort your friend is likely to feel is the emphathetic kind. Mostly she will appreciate that you volunteered to tap dance on eggshells in the first place.
Also, on behalf of myself and others similarly situated, allow me to offer apologies for sending out CUH-RAZY mixed signals. One minute we're joking and posting photos on Facebook with "Good times!" captions, and/or fretting over inconsequential things, and the next minute we're wallowing. The joking, good-timing and fretting could be defensive, but not necessarily. The first thing that they tell you after a parent, spouse or child dies is: grief is not linear. And if you are me (or my mom), you respond, Mmmmkay, what the heck does that mean? But I get it now. There are stretches of time where you are able to function, more or less, like a non-grieving person. You joke, you enjoy your family and friends, and you sweat small stuff. Doesn't mean that the grief is gone, and sooner or later it comes back to the forefront. If the erratic pattern catches me unawares, I know it has to be confusing to others.
So, to my Non-Suck-Ups: please feel free to get in my face. Or, you know, don't. Just know that I will love you either way.
To my Suck-Ups who are RS Club members: Thanksgiving will be over in 48 hours. Love to you all.
To my Suck-Ups who are not RS Club members: how bleepin' brave are you? Thank you for getting in my face. Your in-my-face-ness means more than words can say.
And, also, I love you.
Thankful for you all.