“A single person is missing for you and the whole world is empty." – Joan Didion
For people coping with the loss of a spouse/significant other, shock waves reverberate. Lives that were intertwined are now permanently separated.
A sudden loss is shocking. So too is a death that is “expected." For the latter, there are whispers – it was a “mercy," s/he is “released." (While these may be true in some measure, they do little to comfort the bereaved).
Other things do comfort the surviving partner. Here is where communities do have great impact – where the bereaved (while devastated) may feel less alone.
For those wishing to help, begin by knowing that the shock of grief is profound in any circumstance.
I have observed this. Following my grandfather’s decades-long battle with Parkinson’s Disease, I remember my grandmother – stunned at the reality of his funeral.
The shock of grief.
It causes people to stand around thinking about the profundity of the obvious: what do you mean when you say I will never see my love again? Lines extend from places of worship, snaking slowly towards the bereaved. There are ashes scattered in seven oceans.
The writer Joan Didion describes the loss of her husband in her award-winning memoir The Year of Magical Thinking.
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death … [W]e might expect if the death is sudden, to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is going to return and need his shoes."
This passage underscores beautifully both the shock of loss, but also its ripple effects and afterblows. It is useful to understand the nature of shock as lasting when trying to conceive of ways to offer meaningful assistance to those in grief.
If a death was sudden, the grief is a body blow. But if the death was expected, it is still a body blow. No one knows the full measure of grief until they are in it.
It therefore becomes the job of those who love the surviving spouse to form a protective chain around the bereaved. Husbands who lose wives, and wives who lose husbands fall into the chasm of grief. Husbands who lose husbands, and wives who lose wives feel alone. Grief is a great leveler – a universal truth, an inevitability. So what can one do to help?
Consider whether young children are a factor. If they are, it will be especially useful to build supportive mechanisms for them.
If a surviving spouse is solo without young children, food delivery, while appreciated, can morph into other gifts that may be even more useful. Food is very useful while family is visiting, but becomes less so as people begin to peel away and return to their lives. (There is only so much food one person can eat).
If a surviving partner does have children, do keep food coming. This saves both time and money. At the end of a long day wherein the bereaved has once more navigated a new grief landscape with children, a meal s/he does not have to provide is a tremendous gift.
Offers to accompany a surviving partner on new adventures is always a nice thought. This will depend on the age of the surviving partner, other commitments (work, family.) Efforts toward these ends can range from initiatives designed to get someone out of their head (online therapy) or to take a break and relax (spa.) Go to a movie.
It is nice to remember to mark significant anniversaries. For bereaved people who are comfortable using social media, remembering to tag them in a Facebook post is a powerful remembrance.
Provide opportunities to talk about the person who died. You are not “reminding" the bereaved of their lost love. They have not forgotten. In inviting their confidences, you are inviting their deep(er) friendship.
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