A few years ago, an acquaintance who’d just lost his father asked me for a favor: could I research some things for him? He didn’t know what it would cost for a funeral home to take his father’s body when the coroner’s office finished its autopsy. He didn’t know what cremation options there were or how much of his father they could restore. He didn’t want his stepmother to have to see his dad that way. It was the first conversation we’d had in years.
I followed through without hesitation. I was living on the east coast at the time, and they were in California. I made the calls, negotiated prices, learned to use euphemisms such as “burial merchandise” and “personalizing services.”
I thought about how isolating even shared grief can be. There are probably as many ways to be lonely as there are people in the world.
Some lonelinesses–because there are more than one–are difficult but good. When you’re an introvert, loneliness is solitude because it’s welcome. You solve problems, make to-do lists, remember mortality in loneliness.
Other kinds of loneliness can be as difficult and less good. The lonelinesses of grief come to mind. Some people call them stages, but they don’t seem to me to follow a pattern or even the same patterns. Sometimes people seem to experience denial, anger, and depression at the same time or in a cycle that repeats. Sometimes depression seems to stick around years after acceptance. And there are other complex feelings–relief, joy, guilt, etc.–that appear.
The plural of anecdote is not data: my observations and experiences do not form a large enough sample to be significant. But there are probably as many ways to grieve as there are people in the world, even if the feeling of loss itself is universal.
I’m not sure what it is about death, but even when you know what not to say to a person who’s grieving, you still say it. Pacing around your living room hearing the news for the first time in that conversation with too much silence, the cliché slips out. Sometimes you hold a hand, a gaze, a body, and try to make the bromide less meaningless: if there’s anything I can do, I’m so so sorry, call if you need anything at all…. What are these anythings?
Then there are the clichés I never say, or rather, the clichés it hurts even me to hear said to someone who is grieving: everything happens for a reason, he’s in a better place now, time heals….
Grief doesn’t keep a schedule. Some people you lose, and it always hurts. There was this place in your heart where they lived, and even with time, no one else moved in there.
And that’s natural. A life fully lived contains more than happiness.
The things I want to say seem inappropriate to say aloud: May I hold you? May I take you to dinner? May I listen? They feel invasive. What words can bear or convey the loss of a father, a friend?
I ask, “How are you?” But not without wondering if the person who is grieving has fallen to saying “I’m okay.” Maybe there hasn’t been time yet to put anything to words. Or maybe telling the truth is lonelier: people try to cheer him up, and when they fail, he tries to cheer them up, which makes him feel worse.
All I can do is be around, concretely and physically around. If he has nothing to say, I can sit in silence with him. If he has something to say, I can sit in silence and listen. I can make the calls, make the dinners, make the time.
I can do some anythings.
Nice piece! Grief, especially dealing with that of others, is so difficult to navigate. It’s tough to talk about, even in the abstract as you’ve done, but it’s important.
It’s kind of like money–no one likes to talk about it, but when it or its attendant complications enter your life, everyone’s just expected to know what to do.
Thanks for ruminating on it and sharing!
Well put, your point about cliches and using them even when you know not to is particularly interesting. It feels wrong either way, but it’s also not necessarily insincere.
This piece is incredible.
Wow. Very nice. I’m intrigued by the idea of a “good” loneliness, at the beginning of this essay. From your description it sounds like a productive malaise: “You solve problems, make to-do lists, remember mortality in loneliness.” I wonder if it is equally difficult to find the right words to speak to someone in a “good” loneliness. Sometimes it seems like there are these cycles of introversion/extroversion, acting as a backdrop to the events of our lives. Thanks for this post, it gave me a lot to think about.
Really beautiful article.
That’s incredible Clarinda!
A well written article on a subject that is part of life cycle. Good writing, thought provoking.
A beautiful and moving essay. Thanks.
One of your best pieces so far.
Amazing writing and depth of understanding of grief and loneliness. It rings true to my experiences for sure. In my own selfishness as a reader, I love great ending lines and “I can do some anythings” is absolutely brilliant.
Especially poignant and timely for me as I struggle with words to say, actions to take and shoulders to offer to my cousin who just lost her husband last week. In her 50s before meeting her soulmate, Karen was over the moon as she announced her engagement this time last year. Barely a month after the announcement, she and her fiance learned that he had an inoperable brain tumor. Eschewing the planned elaborate wedding in favor of a quiet, personal ceremony, Karen and John devoted all of their remaining days to each other. Yet honeymoon gave way to chemotherapy and dates were spent at doctor’s offices. Less than a year after her engagement, my cousin became a widow.
I have been struggling with what to say to her at the memorial service this summer. Your beautiful article gives me courage and ideas for being there for her in whatever form her grief takes.
You’re a very talented writer. I subscribed to your website.
This piece is incredible on so many levels. I love it!
“Or maybe telling the truth is lonelier: ”
Mmm, I really hear this.
thought provoking and heartfelt as usual!
Beautiful piece. -The logistics of what to do after someone passes away can be daunting as well as foreign, yet we all have to face that moment. Thank you for this.