December isn’t my favorite month of the year, and likely never will be. My story starts with my children, and as the old adage says, ladies first.
Coping with Grief
In 2010, my daughter Rachel was seven going on seventeen, complete with an opinion bred from every teenage year between. Back in those days, she was one of those insufferable children who always managed to sneak into my wife and my bed, and often I would wake to her smiling face. It was one of those frustratingly sweet experiences. And each morning that I would wake up before her, she would announce that my days of productivity were over by crawling into my lap and cuddle there for at least half an hour. She often described our relationship by holding up her pinkie finger and identifying it as “Me” and then wrapping her index finger around it and labeling it “You.” Any father who denies this kind of relationship with his daughter is lying. We’re all wrapped around a beautiful little girl’s finger, and that’s that.
Then I came home from work two days after Christmas and my wife announced that Rachel was suffering from a migraine and flu-like symptoms. Within the next fifteen hours, we were sitting in the hospital ER, lost, broken hearted, and holding the gently cooling hand of our little girl as she lay lifeless on the hospital bed.
What we didn’t know was that Rachel was born with a slowly deteriorating spleen which, over the period of seven years, had stopped working entirely. So when the flu infected her system, her spleen had ceased functioning properly (it’s a filtering organ) and allowed the infection to ravage the rest of her system, shutting her down quickly. The doctor said that even if we had brought her in in time to save her, her symptoms were just that of a flu victim and he would have sent us home.
Dealing with Death
Now, Rachel left behind her parents, and three brothers, one a twin and the other 2 little brothers, all wondering what to do. Thankfully, we have something locally called The Sharing Place, a grief counseling center for children. As part of our bi-weekly opportunities to go in, we have learned some skills and observed some similarities with some of the other parents. This is not an all-comprehensive list by any means, and I am not a licensed therapist, so they are merely things I’ve seen and hope will help with those who are grieving, or have friends who are grieving as well.
- Listen. For those who are grieving, they sometimes need to talk, and having a good listener is paramount. This is not a time to compare war wounds, but to simply listen. If they ask what they should do, it’s OK to say “I don’t know.” But having someone to laugh and cry with never hurts.
- Don’t treat kids like idiots. Kids don’t get things like “They passed” or “Moved on.” If you tell your child that the deceased has died, they understand that, even if they don’t understand all of the nuances of mortality. Died and dead, though they sound harsh to our ears are easily understandable by little ones. And only tell them that “God took them.” if you want your child to have a serious complex and belief schism that they will be telling their therapist about in later years.
- Pain isn’t comparative. Those who hurt aren’t unique on a large scale (everyone suffers) but suffering is something that pushes the limits of a person’s personal understanding and emotional states. I can’t tell you how many people have told me “My husband/wife just died, but it can’t be anything compared to losing a child.” This isn’t true. Pain is personal, and no one can one-up someone else in suffering. And though suffering is unique, understanding is universal.
- The world will look differently. Everything will change for the griever. They will take normal things and said things will take on new meaning. I never hear a break-up song where the boy loses the girl without thinking about my little girl. As an example, the song “When You’re Dreaming With a Broken Heart” reminds me so much of my little girl that she’s all I can think of when I hear it.
- The stages of grief don’t have an order for the griever. You know the drill: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally Acceptance, all wrapped up in a neat little package. It may work that way for the dying, but for those left behind, there is no order. Though I’ve been through two or three (depression, anger and acceptance) they happened in no specific order and some I didn’t experience at all (bargaining comes to mind). Anger and depression have even made a few return trips. If you know someone who is grieving, be patient. They are going through emotional and mental healing. If they aren’t progressing according to the chart, don’t worry about it. There is no order here.
- Pain can manifest as anger. Sometimes pain translates directly into anger. There needs to be an outlet for it. Something to punch, something to throw, something that hopefully doesn’t break or hurt. As I mentioned, I am very fortunate to go to The Sharing Place. They have a room called The Volcano Room which is a padded room full of punching bags, pillows and other things to get the anger and hurt out.
- Reality keeps on going. Jobs will still suck, life is still unfair, your lottery number still probably won’t get picked and people are stupid. In the case of the latter, people don’t know what the griever is going through, and they don’t know how to handle grief, so in lieu of being tactful, the most stupid thing in the word is about to vomit out of their mouths. Sometimes those people are your family or even best friends. Keep a journal of their stupidity and maybe you can use it against them later on or something. As a personal story, I had a cousin that I was talking to at the funeral and I mentioned that I felt lucky to have had Rachel in my life. “NO!” She exclaimed. “Say it like it is. You were blessed.” Not knowing how to react to this I continued on and mentioned how lucky I was to have my wife through this ordeal. “NO!” She interrupted again. “Say it like it is. You were blessed.” Sorry, I have to ignore you now before I have to punch you in the face.
- The world’s expectations vs. reality. The average job gives three days grievance in the case of immediate death in the family. Just a forewarning: This isn’t enough. Grief lasts years. I almost wish my three days grievance could happen six months later on in the year when the real grief broke. And they had to just deal with it when I sat crying at my desk. If they wanted me to get over it and get back to work, a healthier grievance time should be considered. If you have any sick leave or annual leave saved up, you might want to consider using it in the next few years just to grieve. And the firsts of everything (holidays, special days, heck, sometimes just regular days) are especially hard.
- Help them to remember. Not every child who dies is newsworthy. Not all tragedies are remembered by millions or even hundreds. A parent who loses a child needs to know their child is remembered. This needs great tact and sensitivity, but it does worlds of good. Just the other day I found out ways in which my little girl touched complete strangers that helped me to know that her memory lives on in other people’s lives. In an attempt to remember my little girl, I made this video of her to the tune of the last lullaby I ever sang to her. (A word to the wise: we are a very religious family and under Sam’s comment that Rachel is still part of our family, he’s referring to the fact that we believe that if a couple is married in one of our temples, it is essentially an eternal family).
There are a million facets to grief, and no one blog post can cover them all. These are just a few items that I noticed. Death isn’t the end of it all for the griever, and there are a lot of times when the griever feels like the dead family member got off lucky. At least they don’t have to go through the grieving. Knowing that the grief doesn’t need to be suffered through alone is very important, though. Sometimes a griever only needs someone to cry with.