Many years ago, a colleague's father died in a freak accident.
We were casual friends then and, because I didn't know what to say, I said nothing. I told myself I didn't want to remind him of his terrible loss, that I was sparing him the possibility of crying at work. I avoided him.
It was only when my own dad died years later that I realized, with real regret, that I hadn't been sparing him. I'd been sparing myself a painful conversation. There was never a chance I'd remind him of his loss. Undoubtedly, he knew it with each grieving breath he took in the immediate period after his dad died. My failure to speak, however, spoke volumes about my own lack of maturity at that time.
I've come to believe that Americans are particularly awkward about death. We don't like to talk about it — unless it's scandalous or has a celebrity attached. When our elderly or frail parents bring up the topic, we shush them, silencing the important conversation that could make us all a little freer. "Don't talk that way. You'll be fine."
And when someone else suffers an unbearably painful loss, we mentally get out our stopwatches and hit "start," setting some sort of mental time limit on how long we believe someone should take to get their grieving done and move on.
As if ... .
Recently, I got a note from Eleanor, who is making an unexpected journey through grief after a young relative died in a cataclysmic fall. Her words reminded me that love is boundless, grief has no time frame and we each have the power to lift part of the burden. It is a lesson most of us learn only when we experience such grief ourselves.
Eleanor recalls sitting at a luncheon next to a friend who'd been a widow for four months. When her friend said she was struggling with the loss, "I remember thinking, wow, it has been four months. I would have thought she would have stabilized by now. I feel so bad for my ignorance."
She writes of the overwhelming outpouring that came right after the death — the love and food that she desperately needed, but barely remembers because she was shell-shocked at the time. "It is in the weeks later when everybody has left and you have to watch the flowers from the funeral die and then physically throw them in the trash can and the house is so very, very quiet, that is when you need the help. You need a phone call, you need a card, you need a one-on-one conversation, you need not to be judged because you are incapable of going to a social and making idle chitchat. Basically, you just need to know someone remembers you are in pain."
When my dad died in 1994, I learned that grief changes and ebbs and resurges. It has its own time and intensity, sometimes startling me even now.
She writes that she's "sad. Not particularly depressed, just sad ... . I don't feel like going to a party, so I don't. But I would love to have someone care enough about me to ask me to go to lunch, someone that would like to talk to me. I know I will cry when we talk and I apologize for that. But the truth is I am amazed at how people feel so very uncomfortable around me."
Including her clergy, she says. And her friends. "If I were sitting there in a full body cast, I am certain we would have a conversation about that, but this conversation seems to be off limits."
She is surrounded, she notes, by friends and even family that she suspects are trying to "take care" of her with their silence.
It's not working.
Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by email at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.