Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Matters of Life and Death

After Red's recent post regarding her ongoing grieving for her daughter, Therese, one commenter asked the following question:

Was there anything that you read or anything that anyone did for you that was particularly helpful during your immediate time of grief?

I have not experienced the loss of a baby of my own, so I hope that those who have will not find me presumptuous in responding to this question, but I wanted to share some thoughts.

My family is very upfront about illness and death. Perhaps this is because my mother's relatives ran a funeral home, or more likely because of my parents' faith, they felt that children should be allowed to deal with this reality of life head-on. Both of my grandmothers were from large families, and I recall a span of time when about once a year we would all pile into the car to head to a wake for a great aunt or uncle. These sad occasions were slightly softened for me by the fact that I might not know the person well, but I think they were formative in that I saw adults and children in my family grieving, I became familiar with the etiquette, traditions and rites of the Catholic wake and funeral (or I should say, the Irish kind, since even in America different cultures have different traditions in this area). The most important lesson I learned, however, was that it does matter to people that you show up, and even if you don't know what to say, your small acts of kindness make a difference.

I point this out because I know that often we don't do or say anything for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. There are very few wrong things to say, the saddest thing to do is just ignore the person or cut them off socially because you cannot deal with what is happening. This sounds crazy, but it happens all the time when people are terminally ill.

As I grew older, I lived these things first hand. My grandfather died after a long illness, and then both of my brothers suffered, and, thankfully recovered from, life threatening illnesses during college. Last May, my aunt died in my parents' home after a painful year of suffering with cancer.

From those experiences, I draw the same lesson, it matters that you show up. My family was acutely aware of the small kindnesses offered during these difficult times -- dropping off a funny DVD for distraction, having bagels delivered to the house one morning, cards and masses offered, more distant friends who made the effort to attend the funeral. I will say this, we are a very, very private family, and for us it was helpful that most of the things that people offered were "non-invasive." When my brother was in the hospital, I put one helpful friend in charge of communicating all the information to the others, we were providing care around the clock and at that time I just did not have the time or energy to talk to people. With that said, every time I checked my voicemail my burden was somewhat lightened by short, caring messages my friends had left. For people who are, essentially, living at a hospital, a care package of toiletries can help, my poor cousin went about a week without deoderant because he was running from school to the hospital and never had time to get to the drug store. If someone mentions a small problem, offer an immediate, simple solution. I will never forget the friend who dug through her son's closet for a white shirt for my little boy to wear to the funeral.

This month is the first anniversary of the death of my aunt, and my perspective from this year, and also from watching my grandmother recover from the loss of her husband, is that there is often a flurry of support right at the center of the crisis, but things can get quiet and lonely as time passes. My mother has been touched by my aunt's friends who have called her every few months and invited her to lunch. My grandmother was relieved when she was welcomed back into the social circle from which she had been long absent while she cared for her husband. This month in particular there were masses offered for my Aunt, and it was so nice to know that she had not been forgotten.

I was surprised by the number of people who responded to Red's post that they had lost a child as well. I am glad that Red shared her intimate feelings because it shows others that this is a safe place to talk about this loss. My grandmother had four stillborn children, and she was known to say that the love of a good man could get you through anything. This is true, but for her this loss became a personal secret, it was something that we never spoke about. It was not until I had children of my own that I understood that this also meant that she carried these four babies for nine months, and because of the health situation she knew, or at least suspected, that the baby would not survive. My grandmother also had a wonderful mother and a supportive family, but I am glad that women in our generation can also turn to friends, talk about their loss and joy in these babies, and, most of all, not be afraid to remember them.

I am also proud of Kat and Red as they have allowed their other children to know about and share in the life and death of their sisters. This is often painful, but it is truly the right thing to do. It may have been easier for my parents to get a sitter than to bring us along to funerals, taking the time to get us dressed up and to explain what was a happening, but over time, it will help these children be more compassionate when others are suffering loss.


Lara said...

Mary Alice--
This is so true, "It matters that you show up". My mother is the funeral coordinator at our church. When my 14 year-old son was young, he attended more funerals than birthday parties :) to help her out while I was working. I had some mild but mixed feelings about this. However when my father died 3 years ago, I better understood the maturity and coping skills that my son learned from this experience. He had some tools for dealing with the death of his beloved grandfather. He knew what to expect in a practical sense--about the funeral planning, the wake, etc., and this gave him some space to deal with the emotional side of it. It was such a blessing. He participated in the mass in such a beautiful and meaningful way.

Your post also reminded me of a book I read called "Each Little Bird That Sings". It's a children's book, but it echoes some of themes in your post about being there and being a comfort to one another. I wrote a review of it on my blog here:
It's a lovely little book if you get the chance.


Kat said...

Mary Alice, thanks so much for your post...Don't have time to comment now, but I have some thoughts that I will share later. It's so true what you say!

Alex said...

Mary Alice, I couldn't agree more with your thoughts, as well as with all of those who responded to Red's previous post with ideas on how to comfort others in times of grief.

I would only add that when my husband and I lost our daughter, we found great consolation in all of the mass intentions that were dedicated by friends and family members all over the country, and I know that it will be the first thing that I do when it is my turn to share others' grief. Also, my aunt sent me a letter in which she simply wrote out the many names of all of her friends and family members that were praying for us, some of whom we knew and some of whom we didn't. It was a subtle and meaningful gesture that brought us great comfort, knowing what an extended group of people had our little one--and us--in their thoughts, while still respecting the fact that at that moment we were not up for communicating with everyone ourselves as we were trying to initially deal with the devastating loss.

Right Said Red said...


Wonderful answer to the question in the comments. I was planning to address this tomorrow, but you did a fabulous job with it here. I'll only add a couple of thoughts.

First, when a parent is grieving, many well meaning friends will offer to help. That's great, but make the offer concrete and real. For example, don't say, "let me know if you need anything." Most grieving parents won't ever call and tell you what they need. Instead say, "I'd like to make you a meal, can I bring it over on Tuesday or Thursday." Offer something concrete and then offer a time when you can do that task.

Keep in mind that when people are grieving, the day to day tasks can sometimes seem overwhelming. In the months following my daughter's death, I really struggled with basic things like cleaning the bathroom or cooking dinner. Small gestures like a meal, or a gift certificate out to a restaurant were really appreciated and helpful.

Second, be a listening ear when your friend wants to talk about their grief, but keep it light if they don't. Try to be sensitive to what your friend wants. Sometimes I didn't want to talk about things, other times I did. The closest friends I had were the ones who recognized which mood I was in...

Third, try to remember anniversaries (such as the birthday or "death" day) and send a card, send flowers, write an e-mail, or call and let that person know you are thinking of them and praying for them. There is nothing worse that feeling like your loss has been forgotten by others. One of the hardest things about grieving a loved one's death is that it doesn't go away. One month, one year, five years later you are still grieving...but everyone else has moved on. Let them know you haven't forgotten.

Finally, don't try to make it better by saying trite things like "she's in a better place now." Or "you should be happy that your daughter is in heaven." Or even worse, "I'm sure you'll have other children someday." These comments are hurtful. You can't make it better by saying some good one-liner.

I think one of the hardest things for people to accept is that you really can't make it all better. But you can offer help in small ways and help the grieving person keep their head above water. As MaryAlice said,just being there is really important.

Bethany said...

I have to ask this, and I by no means intend to offend or hurt anyone, but I do have an honest question in regards to this post. For those of you who have experienced great loss, whether it be a beloved aunt, or a still-born baby: do you find comfort in all those who "show up" even if their obvious intention is not necessarily to show respect or provide a distraction, but to become the center of attention. Or perhaps you have not dealt with that type of person.

This may be a cryptic message and if you have inquiries into my meaning, please ask.

Mary Alice said...

I'll try to respond to that: My mother says that there are some people who want to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral!

I think that all we can do is to pray for these people. They have some sort of deep longing in their life.

At the same time, you never know what good these people may wind up doing. When I was a child, a friend had a traumatic brain injury from which she never really recovered. This one girl from our class started visiting daily. LAME, we thought, our sick friend was cool, this girl was not one of our friends, and she seemed to be doing it to make herself important, she was the one with the news and updates. Over time, though, it came to be the case that she was really giving of herself. She was the one person who kept visiting, daily, as the years went on. She became a true blessing to that family.

When my aunt was sick, there were a few people who were really bothersome. Some were good hearted but just hit the wrong tone, but there were some who were sort of creepy and not nice about things.

We can only control ourselves, so we can try to respond with prayer.

Also, if you are grieving or dealing with crisis, this is me giving you permission to just blow people off if they are getting on your nerves. You can ask a trusted friend to help with this. K, a frequent commenter here, was my "buffer" for my aunt's funeral, she dealt with my complicated people so that I didn't have to. This is not to be un-charitable about it, but there are some moments when we just don't have it in us, you know?

Then, with a little distance, prayer and clenched jaws, sit down and write a thank you note to that person for showing up.

texas mommy said...

I appreciate so much how many women, including Kat, Red and BMama have been open about losing little ones. Knowing other women have been through such times is itself helpful.

When I had an early miscarriage, I was overwhelmed and unprepared for the flood of conflicting emotions. At times, genuine joy at having a little one in heaven, and at times anger, confusion and sadness. I remember Red telling me that this was ok and normal and whatever I was feeling at a particular moment was just right and not to feel guilty at not feeling a certain emotion at a certain time that I thought I should be feeling. This was the most helpful thing anyone said to me.

This continued to be helpful advice as I was shocked by feeling somewhat guilty in addition to overjoyed at a new pregnancy soon after, knowing that Jack-Jack wouldn't be here if Kolbe was still with us.

Bethany said...

Mary Alice-

I appreciate your words of wisdom as well as your examples from your Aunt's passing.

I will try to keep in mind your "permission", though the situation is touchy at best.

My grandmother passed away on the 9th after 2 1/2 year long fight with breast cancer that had spread. My aunt, her daughter, is the person to whom I refer. They had spoken very little in the 2 1/2 years, mostly because both were equally stubborn. Unfortunately, they did not get the chance to reconcile.
My aunt has had always felt the need to "attend" the funerals of everyone in the small town they live in, even if she only knew the person through a third party acquaintance. Her "visits" to the funeral homes are some of the what the rest of the family gossips about. Especially since she wears sweat suits or jeans and holey t-shirts to these services.

There are many issues with my aunt that I pray about on a daily basis.
But I was just very disappointed at my grandmother's funeral last week, when she treated her own mother in the same fashion. In some ways it made me feel uncomfortable; it was like a social occasion, akin to an afternoon tea.

I guess I was wondering if anyone else has run into a similar type of person and whether or not that person was helpful or hindering, or neither, or both. I think I'm trying to figure out to reconcile my aunt's behaviour so that I don't feel so upset with her.
Does that make any sense? I probably babbled quite a bit. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone have any additional ideas of things that can be done when you are several hundred miles away from the grieving family? I've tried to meet a few small needs that have been made evident with little care packages of non-perishables, but it's so difficult to be so far away and feel so helpless when one of my dearest friends is suffering so greatly.

Thank you so much for sharing, ladies. I only discovered this blog a few weeks ago, but have found everything I've read thus far very thought-provoking, enriching, and sincere--which is wonderful, even with the most difficult of topics. What a blessing that you all have one another and that you're sharing yourselves with the rest of the world!

B-Mama said...

Mary Alice, beautiful follow-up to such a sensitive topic...

Anonymous, I feel your pain being far away from the person you want to support. When Red was dealing with the loss of Therese, it was so hard for me to be so many miles away in Colorado. Here are some thoughts I had for you (summarizing some ideas offered by other commenters): flowers (for anniversaries or for no reason at all), "thinking of you/praying for you" cards or notes, gift certificates for meals out or cleaning services, prayer/mass intentions, voicemails, emails--basically anything that will show her you are "there", even though you are separated by distance. Just the fact that you are creatively thinking through ideas shows that you are a kind and thoughtful friend. Blessings to you...

T. Armstrong said...

I am an occasional reader of this blog (found through B-Mama) and I wanted to post a comment regarding some of the past postings. I too suffered through the loss of a still born at 19 weeks pregnant (almost 7 months ago), and I want to add that what Mary Alice posted is so right on. Being there and saying something means so much, and while the outcasted feeling that comes when going through something of this magnitude does come, there are so many others who love and support help you through. (B-Mama was one, whether she knows or not at the 10 year reunion!:)) A simple phone call (a message, because I often didn't feel like answering the phone, or was unable to talk), an email, a card, flowers, gift certificate out, the offer to watch my children, although at that time I didn't want my two girls out of my reach.

Red's comment also took words right out of my mouth as to what I was going to post here. We were humbled by the great support and love of everyone around us, and through the grieving we were overwhlemed by God's greatness as we saw the many blessings that surrounded us. God is good...all the time.

Yes, there were and still are comments, the one liners (that Red refered to) that people feel they must say, that hurt, but I always try to remember that their true intention is not to hurt me.

So, really this comment was to say, great postings ladies! Very true and heartfelt. Thanks for opening yourselves up to a vulnerable topic and sharing your insights to so many others.

Caroline said...

This is for Mary Alice. I am a Catholic writer doing a piece on Catholic funerals.... I'd be interested in talking to you via email/phone if you have time for a short interview.
If this would work for you, please contact me at:

Thank you!