When you have lived the grief experience others often assume you know "just what to say" to a friend or family member who has lost a person they love. Many times I have been the go-to person for advice on what to say, how to help, what not to say, and sometimes for requests to make a personal phone call to a fellow griever. Many times I feel overwhelmed by this assumption, because the truth is nothing changes the fact that the person they love isn't coming home. This fact alone is so strong, and devastating that I sometimes feel that words are futile, and the little I can do is but a bandage on a gaping wound.
But I am wrong. Recently my daughter taught me what words, actions, and willingness can do to heal a friend in need. This weekend, I was scheduled to spend three days away with two of my best friends. We spent Friday at the Tour of California (very cool, and I got a photo with Phil Liggett!!) and were on our way to a weekend at the desert when my cell phone rang. Seeing my daughter's name on the screen I picked up cheerfully, but the wind was knocked out of me by the sound of my crying girl on the other end. My first instinct was to be sure she was safe...did she get into a car accident, suffer some other serious injury, was there a relationship issue I was unaware of?? But some part of me knew the unique timbre of those tears, Caitlin was calling to tell me one of her best friend's mother was dead. Between her broken sobs, and confusing explanations my heart began an oddly familiar rhythm. I knew these tears, and the road ahead for this boy's family was crystal clear to me.
Sparing details of the story that are not mine to share, this mother's death was unexpected, mind bogglingly fast, and left three children without a mother and their father without a wife. Not to mention her parents, siblings, friends, and other family members who grieve the loss of a woman they loved. As things turned out Caitlin and I both witnessed the grief of this family first hand, both helpless observers, and seasoned vets. The combination grated my nerves. I could anticipate what lies ahead for this torn family, but felt useless as they each processed this new and devastating information. I paced, I hugged, I made calls, I paced some more, and I watched my little girl gracefully stand to one side both available, and unobtrusive. She reached out when the need was there, she sat quietly when that seemed more appropriate, and she assured her friend that she would be there for him. And she knew what those words meant.
In the moments I spent watching my seventeen year old daughter comfort a grieving family, I remembered the gift of just being. The friends that were the most help to me at the time of my own loss were the ones who could stand beside me no matter where the grief roller coaster took me. Some days I needed them to laugh, other days to cry, sometimes to listen, other times to fill the silence with idle chatter...but most of all I needed to know they wouldn't leave me. That they would be there. And I watched Caitlin do just that with courage, with grace, and with a compassion born of an experience I would have given anything to save her from.
Kids are the best teachers. Mine have easily uncovered some of the most important nuances of living the best life we can. But this weekend Caitlin provided me with a lesson I needed. Grief is only as powerful as we allow it to be. We can comfort each other even without the power to change the facts. A hug and a quiet moment of reflection are priceless. Those of us who have experienced loss have been left with a unique gift; we are hope personified. My little girl made that abundantly clear.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Did you wear your husband's clothes?
For the first few weeks after Phil's death anything that touched his body was sacred. His shoes were sitting just where he last left them, his lunchbox sat on top of the refrigerator, and his toothbrush was standing next to mine in the holder. One day I found one of his eyelashes and pressed it into a plastic rosary holder for safekeeping. Three days before he died, he was working in our attic and left dirty fingerprints on the top of the door in our bedroom. I was annoyed when I saw the black marks on our white door, and made a mental note to ask him to clean off the prints. Those black marks now hold a place of honor on my otherwise white door.
In those early days I didn't handle Phil's things very often~I was afraid of losing his scent, or masking that unique smell with my own. But after a few months, as shock wore off and reality started to press in around me, I became desperate for the comfort of Phil's arms. One morning I woke up crying (again) and wrapped my own arms around myself trying to imagine that my limbs were his. Rocking back and forth in the middle of my bed I looked up and caught sight of one of his sweatshirts. Even as I literally ached for his touch, I weighed the value of wearing his clothes against the risk of losing even a tiny part of him. With a limited supply of his things their value became immeasurable. But I needed him, so I pulled that sweatshirt over my head. Immediately I felt as if he had wrapped me in a tight hug, and I lay my head on his strong chest and cried my eyes out.
That moment was a milestone for me. I stopped withholding the comfort of wearing his clothes from myself, and just reveled in the warmth of knowing I was wearing a part of him. I slept in his t-shirts, wore his slippers to get the paper, pulled on his raincoat when it poured, and adopted his favorite running shirt as my own. I was layered in Phil, and I loved every minute.
As I became more comfortable using his things and less worried about losing him by making them my own, I discovered that Phil's memory was part of my daily life in a new way. Instead of pulling out his things to torture myself with his absence, I used them to remind me of how much he loved me. The items that were a part of his everyday routine, were proof that he was part of my every day world~even though his body was gone. Our love was obvious to me in his hairbrush, even if that brush was now covered in my hair. When I pulled on his running shirt, I was reminded of sunny afternoons that we headed out the door side-by-side. Slowly I blended what was with what is, and found that the past was paving the way for the future.
I still go out to get the paper in Phil's slippers. Every now and then I giggle as I pull on his favorite sweatshirt, because he would never let me wear it when he was alive. His t-shirts are often my pajamas and that eyelash is still tucked away in the rosary box. What I have learned is that his memory is held not only in the physical evidence of his existence, but in the indelible mark he left on my soul. No amount of time, space, or familiarity will rub that mark off.
Posted by Michele Neff Hernandez at 9:46 AM