Several of my friends have lost loved ones recently, so I’ve been thinking a lot about death and springtime, and how in some ways it’s a strange combination: nature is shedding its drab greyness and is about to burst into colourful bloom. New life is everywhere. And after the long, cold winter we’ve endured in my part of the world, even die-hard winter lovers (yes, I’m one of those) are looking forward to warmer weather.
But I’ve also been teaching modernist poetry lately, and T.S. Eliot’s famous opening lines of The Waste Land are especially meaningful for people who are grieving at this time of year:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
As those “dull roots” are stirred in my memory, I think of the loved ones I’ve lost. My mom died on an Easter Saturday many years ago when I was a teenager. I remember feeling stunned and even offended by the loud celebrations at my church on Easter Sunday. It seemed like a terrible irony that everyone was celebrating the resurrection of Christ when the most important person in my life had just died. (I wish I’d read Megan Devine’s words about “Saturday people” back then.) If I was supposed to feel consoled by my faith, it didn’t work. If you’ve lost someone at Easter, you may also appreciate the stark honesty of this wonderful poem by Jill Alexander Essbaum.
Only a year and a half ago, my brother died suddenly. He was the only sibling I grew up with, and I miss him. He won’t see the first snowdrops or share childhood memories with me of splashing in puddles with new rubber boots or building dams with twigs in the forest near our old house. Here’s my favourite picture of the two of us when we were young.
I hate platitudes, yet I understand why people say them. Even after experiencing major losses of my own, I’m often unsure what to say to bereaved people. I want to comfort them, not offend them. But the first words that come to mind are often the very platitudes I hate so much: “he’s in a better place” or “she would have wanted you to be happy” or “it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Fortunately, I haven’t said any of these things aloud; instead, I try to keep my words simple and honest, just, “I’m sorry” or even, “I don’t know what to say.”
My heart aches for the recently bereaved. I know how unreal life seems and how upsetting it is to see the world go on as if nothing happened, as if nobody notices or cares that you’ve lost someone you loved. I know that longing for one last hug, one last conversation, even one last dream in which that person is as vivid and real as he was in life.
I also know the gradual change that happens if I let myself grieve naturally and don’t block the feelings. The way my calmer spirit slowly returns. The guilty feeling that immediately follows the first time I laugh. The shock that comes the first time I forget, even just for a few minutes, that my loved one is gone. And the longing that quickly returns.
Then, months or years later, I realize I haven’t thought about that person for days, maybe even weeks. The shock and guilt return, but they go away faster. And then I’m like everyone else again, no longer crying in public or struggling to complete even the most mundane tasks, but instead noticing small joys such as a cardinal eating seeds in the garden.
I know becoming “normal” is necessary, though I’ll never call it “getting over” the person’s death (another phrase I hate). What I gain in normalcy, though, I lose in closeness to the person I loved. In the depths of the deepest grief, I feel close to him. When I move into later phases of grief and manage to enjoy life again, our relationship becomes similar to that of old friends who’ve drifted apart, waving from afar every so often, but having accepted that we’ll never talk again in the familiar old way. C.S. Lewis writes about a similar experience of separation after his wife died:
Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman. Founded on fact, no doubt. I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan’t). But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own? The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me. (A Grief Observed)
I’d like to share some things that have helped me in the early stages of bereavement:
1. Allowing myself to be selfish in the sense of doing what I need to do to heal without worrying about the reactions of others. Remembering my loved one in ways that are meaningful to me and honouring to our relationship.
2. Understanding that people want to help but often don’t know how. Instead of waiting for them to read my mind, I’ve given them lists of things I needed (e.g. food, road trips, phone calls). I’ve also reminded myself that people will say thoughtless things: my loved one is in my mind always, but not in theirs. It’s pointless to hold an offhand remark against them.
If you know a recently-bereaved person, here are some suggestions:
1. Ask what you can do to help, and really mean it. If the person isn’t sure, give him or her a short list of things you’re willing to do.
2. Don’t assume you know what the person needs. Every bereaved person is different. They don’t all want to talk. They don’t all want hugs, especially from people they don’t know well. They don’t all cry in front of others or even look sad. That doesn’t mean they’re not.
3. Time slows to a crawl for most bereaved people in the early stages of grief. A day can feel as long as a year. If the person calls or texts you, call or text back immediately if you can.
Does anyone have additional tips? If so, please add them in the comments or send them to me privately. I’d also like to compile a list of books on bereavement that people have found particularly helpful, so please send me your recommendations. I’ll post the titles here later.
For those who find this time of year difficult, I want you to know you’re not alone.