How to help someone who is grieving, in 5 easy steps, from an Absolute Expert on the Subject

I know I haven’t written a lot recently. I’ve been doing so much for Zoé4life, I haven’t had time. We’re working non stop to fund research. And we’ve also put in place a system by which families can apply to us for financial support through the social workers who are at the hospital. The first time a request for help came through Natalie and I both jumped for joy and simultaneously felt like crying. It felt so good to be able to help other people who are actually in the cancer-fight, a battle we are both all too familiar with. But we also acutely remembered the pain and shock of a family hearing the words “your child has cancer”, and knew how limited our help really was.

Still, it felt good to do something.

Because sometimes, there is nothing you can do. And the powerlessness can be overwhelming.

Like when your close friend’s daughter dies.

What do you do? How do help with this?

Some people have actually asked me for advice on what they can do to support Natalie and Zoé’s family, or other friends who are grieving, deal with their loss. They are afraid to say the wrong thing, so they say nothing and assume I have some kind of magic technique.

So here goes. My list of Expert Advice. This is of course based on Actual Scientific Evidence. You will note that any time I capitalize words I am being ironic. Except at the beginning of sentences, and then I am being a Literacy Expert.

My rambling thoughts on the Obvious Clear Path to helping a person through intense grief.

Step 1. Make sure you talk a lot about the child, share memories and photos. Uh, no actually bad idea. Showing them photos you happen to have of their child is just going to make them sad. Revise that:

Step 1. Never, ever talk about the child, make sure you avoid all subjects that could bring up a memory, including: school, vacations, Christmas, any holiday, any other child in the world, any illness, toys, bedrooms, car seats, clothing, hair cuts, movies, tv shows, books, food, travel, any other person, kitchen tables, animals of any kind, toilets, grass, trees, clouds, stars, and the beach. In fact the only safe subject is the weather and then only if it’s raining. Hmm no I think Zoé thought rain was fun. Dammit, there is no safe subject.

So, avoiding the subject is useless and wrong. In fact the person wants to talk about their child. They need to talk about her. Not talking about their child would be like pretending they hadn’t existed, which would be the worst torture.

So Step 1. Make sure you talk about the child and make sure you don’t talk about the child. Good luck with that.

Step 2. When your friend is sad, cheer them up by reminding them of how great it was that their child existed, even if for too short a time. Uh, no. Wrong. That would be denying the fact that they have every right and reason to be sad.

Revised Step 2. When your friend is sad, distract them with talk of other subjects to get their mind off the child. Be careful to avoid all subjects from Step 1.
Ok that’s all wrong. Getting their mind off their child is an impossibility, it would be like telling someone to hold their breath and not think about breathing.

So, Step 2, Feel free to talk about and remind them of the wonderfulness of their child and accept their sad thoughts that are the result of the wonderfulness of their child.

Step 3. If they need to talk about the sad parts, the horrible parts, the injustice, the anger, the pain, encourage them to open up and share these feelings and acknowledge the unfairness.

But wait, are you not therefore encouraging them to stay in a negative place?

Revised Step 3. If they want to talk about all the bad stuff, remind them of the good times, and say things like, “Your child would want you to be happy”.

Nope, that’s not right. The fact is, everything about the situation sucks. They should be mad, sad, and resentful. I’m mad, sad and resentful.

Step 3. The horrible parts happened. There’s no way around it and there’s no distraction.

Step 4. If they have a happy day, a good day, are laughing or behaving otherwise normal, remind them that they are grieving and that their behavior is odd and probably they are crazy from grief and don’t really know how they feel.

Oh wow if I actually did that I would not live to see the sun set. 😉

Step 4. Ha! If they are happy, that means the grieving is over! We can all get back to normal now.

Uh nope. That’s just not how it works.

Step 4. Happy is happy. Every moment when the person is not feeling crushing pain is a gift. Don’t question it. Embrace it and enjoy it with them. And when it’s gone, trust that it will probably come back later. There is no normal way to grieve.

I guess it turns out there is no proper way to support a person through this incredible grief.

There’s no subject to talk about to take away the pain.

There’s no distraction.

There’s no going back to the way it was before.

There’s no normal.

And I am far, far, far from an Absolute Expert on the Subject. All I can say about that title is that when Natalie read it she might have laughed. Which is at least something.

So here is my ultimate Step 5.

Step 5: Just show up.

Show up scared, and angry, and sad, or worried, confused and desperate, or anxious, overwhelmed and frustrated. Show up happy and at peace, ready to have a wave of anger blow past you if it’s that kind of day. Show up serious and sad, only to be laughed at. Enjoy the gratitude and appreciation for your presence one moment but expect to be forgotten or ignored another time. It’s ok. There are no rules, just as there are no steps that show a clear path to take through a grieving process. There’s no perfect right thing to say, and there’s no reaction that means you did the right or wrong thing. It’s not about you.

Just.
Show.
Up.

 

Our First Date

 

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Martin and I like to look back on our “first date” with fond memories. The funny thing is, when we started comparing how the date and the lead up to it went, we had quite different versions of the same story. So, here, in all its glory, is the story of our first date, and I’ll let you be the judge as to who probably has it right.

 

Nicole’s Version.

 

So there I was, a single mom, living in Switzerland, enjoying life and work and travel, when one of my friends at work decided it was time for me to start dating again. I thought it over. I hadn’t dated in uh… a little while. Life was good, who needs a man anyway? Ok, it would be nice to have someone to go out for supper with, watch movies with, someone kind and intelligent and willing to be in charge of bug squashing and remote control battery buying, two tasks that were sorely unmet in my home. So I decided she was right. I was Ready To Start Dating.

 

She took this on as a mission. I found folded newspaper pages in my locker at work, the classified “men seeking women” section, with big red circles around certain candidates, and notes written on the side like “this one sounds fun!” and “loves travel!”. I read them with interest, put them in my bag, and never looked at them again.

 

My friend did not relent. She started checking into some of the new guys at work, a whole batch of them had just arrived, having been transferred from Zurich. “Fresh meat!” she said, rubbing her hands together greedily (Ok she actually never said or did that, but I like to imagine it that way).

She came up with a candidate.

“Martin. He’s Swedish or Danish or something. One of those countries up there.”

I nodded.

“You don’t know who he is, do you.” She accused.

“Uh…  Is he, uh, tall with dark hair?” I was just guessing.

“They’re all tall with dark hair. Nicole. He’s got potential. He’s taller than YOU. “

I hesitated.

“He reads. He speaks, like, a lot of languages. He’s smart.”

I headed for the door. “My break is over, I’ll check him out” I said enthusiastically.

“He’s perfect!” she called after me.

 

So a few days later. I‘m at work, on a break (you’re starting to think we’re always on a break, but we do actually work too.)

 

I’m sitting at a shared computer area, at one of the many computers available for our use during breaks. I am aimlessly reading emails. Nothing new. I think over this Whole Dating Thing. I really should make more of an effort.

Then I notice him. It’s that guy my friend mentioned, sitting at a computer just across from me. Martin, right? He looks ok. Harmless. Hey, he has a book! Potential.

How do I ask him out? I actually am free tonight, Jesse and Daniel are in Canada at their dad’s for a week!

I get a bit nervous. Come on now, just strike up a conversation. Say something clever and funny.

Silence.

Ok say something deep and meaningful.

Silence.

I have re-read the same sentence on my computer 17 times.

Say anything. Seriously.

“Hey, have you seen that new movie, blah blah blah?” (The blah is because I now can’t remember which movie it was, since I was obviously just pretending I wanted to go see it.)

“Oh,” Martin replies, glancing up from his computer at me. “No. I want to, it should be pretty good.”

“ Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard too!” I say enthusiastically, clearly overjoyed at the possibility of soon seeing blah blah blah.

Silence. Martin goes back to looking at his computer.

I try again.

“Do you know where it’s playing?”

“Uh, nope” he says, and looks away again.

“Oh, that’s too bad.” Now madness takes hold of me. “Maybe I’ll look it up. I could go see it tonight after work. My kids are in Canada, so I’m pretty much free.”

“Hmmm” Martin says, obviously not interested.

“Yep, I’m free as the wind. Free as a bird. Free to do whatever I want. It’s great” I chuckle. (Inner voice: WhatintheworldamIsaying?).

“Huh.” Martin offers, and then stares at his computer again.

“Kind of don’t feel like going alone though.”  (Inner voice: DidIactuallyjust saythat??)

“Hmmmm.” Martin says, staring at a spot next to my head.

“Wonder if anyone else here is off work soon and feels like going too?” I look around the room vacantly, not seeing anything at all, my eyes blinded by my temporary insanity.

“Oh.” Martin looks around too. Then his eyes finally stop on me. “Would you like to go to the movie together?” He asks casually, like the thought just occurred to him.

“Hey, sure, why not?” I respond, acting spontaneous and cool and sophisticated and thrilled and casually interested and nonchalant and bedazzling.

The bedazzling is the best part, isn’t it?

So that’s how I remember it. Then we went out, first to a restaurant downtown, then started talking in real English, and never did see blah blah blah.

 

Martin’s Version.

New job posting in Geneva. Cool. Work is fun. Nice to meet new people.

Hey, there’s a girl who seems nice. Find out name. Nicole. Find out if single. Yes. Make mental note to ask her out when the opportunity arises.

Sitting at a computer on break. Reading about cool interesting gadget stuff. Make mental note to buy everything.

Thoughts interrupted by voice asking about the movie blah blah blah.

Oh, it’s that girl.

Mind goes blank.

Try to think of a way to ask her out.

Nothing.

She keeps talking.

Still trying to think of a way to ask her out.

Nothing.

She is still talking.

Maybe should just take a risk and just ask.

If she would just stop talking I could concentrate on how to say it.

Ok here goes.

“Would you like to go to the movie together?”

She smiles. Says a lot of things. Pretty sure it’s a yes.

She is quite bedazzling.

 

So there you have it, Version 1 or Version 2, who knows which is closer to the truth (well, mine obviously), but regardless, the date was a success since we are now happily married 7 years later, and have still never seen the movie blah blah blah.