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.