Last month, my son came to visit and was home for all of an hour when he received a devastating phone call, news that would send him into the kind of hysterics I’ve never witnessed. He was half shrieking, half screaming. He was punching walls. Hyperventilating. Pacing in broken circles. Mashing fists into his face. I could scarcely make out what he was saying, until I could.
One of his close friends had taken his own life.
They’d had a fight the day before, my son and his friend, and so my son’s initial reaction was to make himself the cause of the tragedy. He just would not let up on the notion.
A while later, he lay on the bed, this six-foot five, beautiful-hearted man-boy, sobbing and shaking, his back sweaty and sauna-hot as I rubbed and rubbed it.
I like to think I am a good listener. I had long ago learned that the key to being a good listener is to just do the listening, without feeling a need to supply suggestions or rationales. Just listen and don’t be a fixer.
Yet, in this case, I felt I had to say something. After all, parents are supposed to know things, they’re supposed have answers, and when their children are hurting, they’re supposed to apply a balm to the damage.
So, I tried. I rubbed my son’s back some more and went into a soliloquy about the dark place that is suicide, grasping for something that made sense and might be healing. But I botched it. I rambled and sort of stuttered. After listening for a few minutes, my son cut me off, saying, “I love you, Dad, but I can’t really connect with what you’re trying to tell me right now.”
The worst thing that can happen to a parent is watching their child suffer. The only thing more horrible than that is not being able to do anything about it.
Some time passed, and when we next spoke I asked how he was doing. “I’m okay, but not okay, if that makes sense,” he said. “The thing is, the five stages of grief they talk about? It’s crap. Grief isn’t linear at all. Every stage fucking hits you at once, except acceptance. That’s the one that’s missing.”
We are all coming off a year like no other, and while 2021 shows the potential for hopefulness, in many respects, it’s started hardly any differently than the year it’s followed.
The virus is still making people sick. It’s still killing people at a steady clip. Families and friends are still being torn apart. The brutal reality is, there’s grieving going on all over the world.
I have often written about one of my mentors, JW, who had a more profound impact on my life than anyone I’ve ever known. When he left the company I worked for, a large part of me left with him. Then, a year later, four days before Thanksgiving, at age 50, while training on a rowing machine, JW had a heart attack and died.
Did I mention he was only 50?
I was shattered. Dumbstruck. I was a deaf and blind toddler with nowhere to go and nothing meaningful to do.
Hundreds of people attended JW’s funeral, many who hadn’t seen each other in some time. For them, the funeral was akin to a reunion. They chatted and hugged and some smiled or chuckled before the ceremony began.
My judge-y self was appalled. I could hardly speak. I was trying to keep my bones from melting, keep my head from snapping off. It was the first time I’d lost someone that close to me and I didn’t know how to do it, didn’t know how to lose them and let them go gracefully. I didn’t know how to grieve properly. Even though I had plenty of people who supported and loved me, without JW, I felt lost and hollow and alone. No amount of crying could change that. Each day got more difficult and time did not heal the wound and so I thought it was all lies and bullshit, the platitudes people pass on in difficult times. I was sullen and cranky and lonesome. I was, for quite a spell, the worst griever the world had ever known.
What I didn’t know is that everyone grieves in a different way, in their own unique fashion. I’ve since lost other people close to me. I’ve experienced plenty of terrible things that have slayed me. I’ve seen the same happen to the people I care most about, people I love deeply. Being human, means we are to going to suffer and someday die. It means the same for those we are connected to.
There was a swath of six months or so during the pandemic where I couldn’t do much of anything. A span where I had no desire to even read, which was actually quite frightening because I am a reader and a lover of language. Me not wanting to read is like a person no longer bothering to bathe or eat or breathe.
During that period, I made some mistakes along the way, and when a person called me out on those, I reflexively blamed it on the pandemic. The response I got was, “Len, we’re all dealing with the pandemic.”
At first, I thought, Well, yeah, of course. That’s true. But then later on, I thought, it’s true, but not true. I had some friends who were leveled by the pandemic, in a manner similar to mine, yet I had other friends who were hardly affected at all.
Some of us feel things more deeply than others. It doesn’t get us brownie points, it doesn’t necessarily excuse things either, but it’s authentic. We all experience things differently.
The thing about grief and grieving is there’s no right way to do it, no plan you can follow. It might be a linear experience for some, but it could be an instantaneous explosion for others, one that lasts and lasts. One that, sadly, never fully dissipates.
And that’s okay because it has to be okay.
So it seems to me, that to care about someone who is grieving, is to bestow them with grace, to let them do it in their own way, on their own terms, for as long as that takes. It doesn’t mean to ignore them. Quite the opposite. Instead, it means being there. Listening. Speaking very little. And if it’s possible, hugging them. Hugging them tight and long and only letting go when they say, “Thank you. I’m good for now.”