My Grief Handbook, Part I

In 1844, Harriet Martineau wrote Life in the Sickroom: Essays by an Invalid, in which she detailed her experiences with constant illness and, more importantly, suggested proper behavior for those visiting the sickroom or those charged with nursing invalids.

I’ve long been interested in tracts such as these.  I wrote my Master’s Thesis on working women in Victorian England, spending a large amount of time on nursing, particularly Florence Nightingale’s tracts such as Notes on Nursing.  My dissertation and several articles I’ve written work with handbooks and conduct manuals that explain how to behave properly as befitting a woman’s status and nationality (Sarah Stickney Ellis’s The Women of England, for example), or how to dress properly (Mary Eliza Haweis’s The Art of Beauty and The Art of Dress).  I find such works fascinating in their Victorian context, considering how much of the era was in social upheaval, with drastic shifts in class status and women’s rights.

One interesting fact I’ve learned during this summer of grief, of mourning my mother, is that people are not necessarily uncomfortable with grief, but rather, people are unsure how to handle a person who is grieving.  I received many phone calls and letters and texts from family and friends saying some form of, “I just don’t know what to say.”  The sincerity of that statement, above almost all others, was strangely the most comforting to me.

In the vein of Ms. Martineau and Ms. Nightingale, I decided, therefore, to write a series of blogs–maybe 1, maybe 50–on my experiences with grief.

These are personal observations and personal experiences, and by no means suggest I am the authority.  But now, after this long summer, I am one authority, my authority, and I will share my experiences with you.

Today, I wish to discuss:

What I Wish People Would Have Said to Me Upon the Death of My Mother

About a month after my mother’s passing, one of her dear friends called me.  I was napping at the time–not surprisingly, sleep was rather difficult for me throughout this process–and she woke me up.  I am a caffeine addict, so I’m not usually my best when I first wake.  But despite this, I remember this conversation so vividly.  She called and apologized for not calling, and she said, “I just don’t know what to say.”

As I mentioned above, it was the sincerity of that statement that struck me.  She didn’t know what to say because she, too, was mourning.  She, too, was mourning her friend and what to say to someone who is in such grief while you, yourself, are in such grief?

Honesty.  That’s what I wanted when my mother passed.  Not platitudes, not “She’s in a better place,” or, “It’s God’s will,” but honesty.  This sucks.  This is a horrible thing.  It’s not going to be okay, not for a long time, but I’m here.  I’m here.

I wanted people to be there for me, even when I didn’t know what I needed.  I wanted people to say to me that they would be ready when I was ready.  A friend of mine from high school and college came to the funeral, just to pay her respects to me.  She handed me a bag with a travel mug from our favorite coffeeshop (in high school, we used to meet there to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and study.  It was the 90s, after all) and a note that said, “When you’re ready, let’s fill this and cry together.”

Those little moments.  Those gentle suggestions.  That’s what I wanted from people.

One final comment before I close this chapter.  As happens on Facebook, we often become friends with friends, or have acquaintances we add to Facebook that we meet at conferences, or during a night out.  I was shocked, truly shocked, by how many of my acquaintances took time out of their lives to write me.  One, in particular, sticks with me.  I was tasked to write my mother’s obituary–who better than her writer daughter, yes?–and I worried over this in a Facebook status (Facebook was a constant comfort to me during this ordeal because so many people helped hold me up).  One such acquaintance, a friend of a friend, wrote me a very long, very kind, very moving note about when he had to write his father’s obituary.  His kind words, his honesty, his suggestions and advice moved me so much I couldn’t tell him, until now, how much it meant to me.

But it did.

No gesture is too small.  A coffee cup, a brief phone call, a card, a message on Facebook, even during the fog, these things matter.  But now, several months later, they matter even more.

So thank you all for your words.  For saying what you said, for admitting you didn’t know what the right thing to say was.

That was, in fact, exactly right.


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