Category Archives: grief

A Course in Healing

1. No one wants to be here, and here we are. Exactly where we’re required to be. So welcome to an experience you never asked for. Welcome to an experience you did not choose. Welcome to “A Course in Healing.” I’m glad you’re here.

2. By the way, the word “glad” (above) is an example of the feigned positivity that will become a norm of your grief experience. Get excited. That was example No. 2.

3. There are no clear learning outcomes for this course, although learning will soon be projected onto your experience. “What have you learned?” People will ask in clipped, expectant tones.

4. “Misfortune is a great teacher,” they will say, and you will learn how to nod wordlessly.

5. It is considered bad form to respond, “I have learned that in the face of my discomfort, I am expected to comfort other people.”

6. It is equally bad form to say, “I have learned that when people ask me how I’m doing, I must say something like okay or fine because those are the only acceptable responses.

7. Do not say, “Sometimes I sit in a dark garage and weep.” Do not say, “I configure my day around ‘Growing Pains’ reruns.”

8. In short, during “A Course in Healing” you will learn how to be a good faker. Some people will even say faking is a key ingredient to your healing. We will cover this dynamic during our unit on Erasure.

9. It’s okay to wonder why the expression of vulnerability upsets the relationship non-grieving people have with permanence and/or the performance of happiness.

10. You may have figured out by now that “A Course in Healing,” should be renamed as “A Course in Lying.” I have brought this suggestion to the Curriculum Committee, and its chair reminds me that “lying” doesn’t resonate, but “healing” has cache. Healing is rainbows and holidays and sparkly love magic. Grief is blech.

11. Now you might be wondering: “Will there be any tests?”

12. Each moment of your life is a test, and there are no grades. Only choices and questions. You pass no matter what choices you make. You pass even if you choose to eat potato chips for every meal, even if you listen to that one Jeff Buckley song until the CD player skips.

13. There is no extra credit. At the end of this course, you will not be a better person. You will be a different person. You might be a person who can tangle with competing truths. You might be better at letting go of appearances, other people’s expectations, your own miscalculated dreams.

14. If I do my job well, I will impress upon you that there is no bright side where your pain fizzles out forever. There are black holes of sorrow. There is dark matter we live inside of and between. There are moments when we wish to disappear forever, if only to stop the pain.

15. There are the people we would have been without our losses, and there are the people we become because of everything we have lost.

16. There are the futures we claim.

17. There are the dreams we rewrite.

18. Take me as a case study: Before my mother died I kept a diary. My college roommate gave it to me one Hanukah. She wrote a quote from Oscar Wilde inside the front cover. “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”

19. And that is what I thought life was back then –– sensation for the taking. A nonstop adventure romp. The long weekend between adolescence and middle age.

20. I was twenty and twenty-one in the last years of my mother’s life, and I wrote sad poetry in that journal. And I wrote about boys I thought I loved, who maybe loved me, who didn’t love me as much as I wanted them to love me.

21. And I wasted my time with these boys. Wasted my worrying. And then my mother died, and I lost interest in boys. I ignored them, avoided them, until I fell hard for a man I never expected to meet. He lived an ocean away. But I wrote to him every day the way I’d once written to my mother. And he wrote back to me.

22. “Hi Sweetie,” his e-mails began. It was the same cheerful salutation my mother had used daily with me. In my first year without her, this man was sunshine pouring down after a night where I believed I’d never see light again.

23. He was the first proxy I made for my dead mother, and he would not be the last.

24. Even though it was not his job, he championed me the way my mother had. He made a big deal of my birthdays. He said, “I love you” without choking. He mailed me mix CDs with heart wrenching songs I’d never heard.

25. He knew where I was at night and in the morning.

26. When we were together, he held me until I fell asleep, the same way my mother had held me long ago.

27. But –– but –– a lover and a mother are not the same thing. A lover cannot be a mother. Such a burden will crush the most sincere loves.

28. One night we both cried, and I boarded a plane alone. I can still hear the sound of my suitcase scraping the pavement on the way to the airport. I thought I was leaving him temporarily. But it turned out that my leaving was permanent. I just didn’t know how to say that yet.

29. I didn’t want to leave this man, and I had to leave this man.

30. I’d never find my mother in another person. If I wasn’t careful, my search for her would destroy every chance at love that came my way.

31. I could never save her.

32. I could only save myself.

33. When I walked away from a man I loved, I walked toward a life I couldn’t imagine, a life he could not walk for me no matter how much he wanted to. I had to walk alone, toward a motherless future awaiting me.

34. My mother taught me there are no escapes.

35. My mother taught me I could withstand being sucked back into the long, lightless night.

36. Her wisdom lived beyond her, lived:

  • in the cat I rescued a few months later, a stray I didn’t want but took, lived
  • in the man I married, and a home where I made my own light, lived
  • in the stairwell of a college, where I sat one afternoon with a student who told me about a man who hurt her.

37. When the student finished her story, I told her a story about my mother.

38. I told her courage means walking toward our worst fears, walking toward the truths we don’t want to say.

39. Then we both walked toward the counseling center.

40. Each time I listen to another person’s hard story, each time I tell my own hard story, I carve another notch on the shrine I built for my mother, a shrine called memory, a shrine called love.

41. Healing is a word I avoid. I’d rather be changed, remade, reborn.

42. I’d rather hold a broken heart in my upturned palm, marvel at a heart that beats in spite of its cracks.

43. In this course, we will be who we are. We will be everything we are afraid to say. We will be the whole story of our pain.

 

Sixty Five

Two weeks before you died, we curled up in your bed and watched “The Golden Girls.” On the TV across from us, four women huddled around a kitchen table, nibbled cheesecake and laughed fake theatrical laughs. I was too young to lose you, and old enough to sense your going. We never said death, dying, dead. If we spoke them, we’d make them true. Denial can be a life preserver. We preserved hope.

The summer before you died, we walked BWI together, and you whispered something shocking in my ear. At first, I didn’t understand. Travelers crushed around us. And I’ve never been good at walking and talking. You stopped moving. You put your arm around me. You said, “My pancreas rejected. It’s okay. I can live without a pancreas.”

I nodded, like I believed you. We walked toward baggage claim. My vision blurred. The airport looked like something under water.

I’d come home to visit the deathbed of your stepfather, the man I knew as a grandfather. I came home to play Sinatra while he took his last breaths. I came home to whisper it was okay to let go. I came home to bury him in Newark beside his first wife.

You couldn’t get out of bed the day of the funeral. We pretended you were just tired.

A month after cremating you, I marked his first yartzheit.

____

Your ashes. My God. Do you know what it is to be 21 and hear a package thump on the front stoop, make the sound of a body hitting cement? Do you know what it is to see the address stamped on the box and know your mother is inside that box?

Only, your mother is not merely your mother. She is your first god, first home, your mirror, your map, the blueprint of everything.

And then, one day, your mother is in a black box inside a cardboard box with a crematorium address stamped on the lid. Your mother is dust and splintered bones and sooty grit, a shadow you can never touch.

You remember denial is a life preserver.

Then you carry the box to a bedroom that still smells like your mother. You ignore a hairbrush holding remnants of hair that never went grey. You open a dresser drawer and tuck the box beneath a stack of sweaters. There, a burial.

____

Seventeen years later, you write before work, at night. Pronouns get confused. You are you. She is you. We are she, her, and me. You do all the mixed-up pronoun things you tell your students not to do. You tangle, untangle, tangle again. You make up for lost time. Grief makes a stern knot you don’t want to untie.

____

You read shitty self help books that say there’s a finish line for grief, say grieving too long is pathological, say sorrow and love are not proportional. You stop reading these books because they make you suspicious. You are not a pathology. You are devoted.

At a lecture, a famous writer talks about desire. Desire is the engine of literature, he says. What we want never adds up to what we have. All books, he says, are actually about crushes.

Okay.

So you have a crush on your dead mother. There are worse things. But what would it mean to stop desiring her? Would that make it okay that she is dead?

Who would you be if you didn’t want her alive?

____

You move through your twenties and thirties without her. You are effective, efficient at steering through life without a mother. You have a solid husband, a good mother-in-law, Google. You can find an answer to any question.

And yet, you delay childbearing because you are afraid to mother without her. Your friends have mothers who watch their grandchildren a few times a week. Still, your friends complain about their mothers to you, and you nod. Because what can you say?

You wonder who you will call in a childcare pinch.

Your sister hires a full-time nanny, manages to juggle a high demand job with graduate school, with two children under the age of five and one on the way.

A nephew has your mother’s eyes and all her facial expressions. A niece has her “whatever” attitude.

One day, your nephew asks to see pictures of your mother. He asks for these photos the same way he asks for Harry Potter Legos — he must have them. But there’s not enough time to show him everything, and you pull out a few photos you know he’s already seen.

You recognize the hunger in his eyes, the downturn of his shoulders when you cannot fulfill his desire to know her.

Still, a ghost grandmother is better than no grandmother at all.

____

You wish you had something wise or prophetic to say on the second week of May when her birthday and Mother’s Day intersect. For so many years, you say nothing, as if silence can erase her absence.

You graduate college on your second Mother’s Day without her.

You mark major milestones on her birthday, May 10: first day of your first job after college, the day you meet your husband, the day you decide to date him, the day he and you buy your first house together.

You mark all the birthdays she didn’t get: 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65.

And all the birthdays she didn’t see you mark: 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37.

And all the events in her grandchildren’s lives that she didn’t see: brit milah, Hebrew namings, Kindergarten graduation, first steps, first words, first Siddur.

As if by marking, you can somehow take something back. Not her life. But the right to tell the story of your desire. Her desire.

Desire, from the Latin, desiderare, means “long for” and “wish for” and derives from the sadly out of vogue expression “await what the stars will bring.”

She used to sing a song of desire to you, a Karen Carpenter song about dreams coming true, stardust, angels.

When you mark her birthday, you remember this song. You remember the gift each line intones, the burden.

She no longer trails your dreams. But nothing stays gone forever.

She finds her way back to you again and again, always in a different form than what you expected.

You watch, wait, listen.

On her birthday, she used to blow out candles, then tell you to make a silent wish.

You can’t say your wish out loud, she said, because then it won’t come true.

Once you gave her a journal and asked her to write down all her desires. She left every page blank.

You fill in the pages for her. You become every wish ever wanted, every wish she never saw come true.

A Season of Loss

We’ve had so much going on this year, and I forgot to buy a yartzheit candle to mark the seventeenth anniversary of my mother’s death. This weekend initiates a trifecta of death anniversaries: my mother (April 7), her mother (April 8), and a beloved aunt (April 9).

I have marked these anniversaries back-to-back for years, often lighting candles in my kitchen. For me, marking death in early April can feel incongruous, an affront to the landscape’s perpetual message of rebirth.

This morning, because our past year has been so complicated, I also forgot that today was my mother’s yartzheit. I remembered only after I opened the kitchen door to let our dogs in from the yard. Nature reminded me. Each time I look at a cherry blossom or daffodil, I remember where I was on a Sunday morning seventeen years ago. I go back to the moment before I learned the news of my mother’s death, when I sat on a sofa while the walls turned salt-lamp pink, then swirled around me. I go back to the the moment after I confirmed the news, when I fell to the floor and opened my mouth to scream but no sound came out. My primary experience was one of silence, which now strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for death and grief.

In the past seventeen years I have mourned my mother, I have resisted cultural silences imposed on the grieving. I have resisted avoiding the topic of death. I have resisted language that denies the reality of death and grief. This blog is one form of resistance.

This week, I’ve thought frequently about how hard it was for me to go back to school after I lost my mother, how much pressure I felt to perform normalcy and perfection. I thought about how I learned to hide my sorrow, and how alien I felt in rooms full of 21-year-olds whose parents were still alive, and often paying their children’s bills. At 21, I had no such resources. I was on my own. To this day, I do not know how I graduated from college, only that I did – on Mother’s Day 2003. Some people tell me I’m strong or brave. But I don’t think finishing college was a heroic act. In a period of tremendous instability, the structure of an academic year gave me stability. I clung to stability. If anything, I feared further change. I avoided uncertainty.

After my graduation ceremony, I went out to lunch with visiting relatives but refused to go out to dinner. Instead, I stayed in my apartment with my sister and boyfriend. We ordered takeout. My graduation was not a celebration, and celebration felt fraudulent. My college graduation was the first major milestone I marked without a mother, and I marked this milestone in public, surrounded by jubilant people, on a Hallmark holiday that forefronts motherhood.

That day, I needed privacy. I needed to grieve alone with my sister. The next week, we’d “celebrate” her graduation. I cannot bear to look at photos from either of these events. I had such a sweet boyfriend at the time, and he stayed with me even though it was hard, and we were both too young to understand the emotional pressures bearing down on us. In the graduation photos, my boyfriend stands next to me. He holds me in a protective embrace. But my eyes are vacant, cold, dead.

I am barely there. I do not want to be there.

Something that bonds Carl and me is that we both lost parents young. We both lost the parents with whom we shared a gender identity – my mother, his father. We both walked across commencement stages, received diplomas, fell in love, began careers, bought homes without those parents present. At our wedding ten years ago, we claimed these losses in a candle-lighting ritual. We acknowledged how light and darkness exist side-by-side as natural elements of human experience, our experience. In our family, grief swims beneath each experience of joy.

This morning, because I could not find a yartzheit candle, I walked from our kitchen to our attic, which we’ve recently remodeled into a meditation/Yoga space and writing studio. I sat on my meditation cushion and lit the only candle we have, a rainbow chakra candle I gave Carl for Christmas. Then I carried the candle through our dark house and placed it on the stove, beside a plate of matzah brei I’d made for Carl’s breakfast. A spoon holder that once belonged to my mother sat behind the candle; it’s one of the few objects I have left from her house.

In our kitchen, the makeshift yartzheit candle still burns, will burn all day. I’ll light another candle tomorrow, and another candle the next day. Outside, the daffodils and cherry blossoms will open more blooms. Each time I see them, I will hold despair and hope in the same gaze. Despair. Hope. Neither cancels the other out. Each magnifies the other. Each reminds me how precious, how beautiful a life touched by death can be.

 

A Gift, a Burden

I bought my mother a journal with a bird on the cover. We were in an Urban Outfitters near The Ohio State University, and my mother was threatening to buy penis-shaped pasta to serve the next time I or my sister had a male friend over for dinner. And I bought her a pale blue journal with a bird on the cover. Inside, I left an inscription. I encouraged her to write down all her dreams, her hopes. When she died four years later, I found the journal under a pile of sweaters. She’d never written a single word.

_____________

The morning my mother died, I fell to the floor and opened my mouth to scream. No sound came out. I reached up and pulled my journal off the coffee table. I opened up to a blank page, wrote the date in a top corner, then scrawled one giant word on the page. WHY?

I’m embarrassed that my first response to my mother’s death was this question, a half formed “Why me?” At the moment I lost her, my head spun with a thousand questions, and the most persistent one rose to the top.

 Why? I asked as if I could find an answer.

Why? I asked and knew I’d never find an answer.

_____________

I have lived for nearly seventeen years without a mother. I was 17 when I bought her the journal with a bird on the cover. Every year, my relationship to her life changes. My relationship to her death changes. Grief changes. Sometimes grief is a bundle that weighs me down so hard I can barely walk. Other times it’s smaller than a speck of dust, something I can almost brush aside, let drift away. I close my eyes and remember what it was like to have a mother. This memory is a dream that escapes me. If I graze the surface of this dream, it shatters.

_____________

 

Grief, from the Old French grever means “burden.” The word grever derives from the Latin gravar, “to make heavy,” a root of the word gravity.

_____________

My mother was my gravity, my ground, my root. Without her, I am rootless.

_____________

 Grief can be an experience of rootlessness, just as grief can be an experience of being weighed down.

_____________

Two contradictory things are true at the same time. That is grief.

_____________

Why didn’t my mother write in the journal with a bird on the cover? What was she afraid of? Or did she not care? Or was she saving the journal for me, because she saw me as the writer?

_____________

 A year after she died, I went to Greek island of Crete. I took her journal. I slept in a room that looked out on the sea. I filled the pages she left blank. I am still filling those pages. I will fill the pages for as long as I am able, which is to say until I die.

_____________

Carl Jung wrote, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of the parents.” There it is again. That word. Burden.

_____________

 My mother’s legacy is a burden, and it also a gift. Neither of these ideas – burden, gift –erase the other. They exist side-by-side, like twins, like my sister and me.

_____________

 My mother’s death did not make me a writer, and I could not make her a writer. I responded to her death with a question because death is a question. I can never know why she refused to write in the pale blue journal with a blue bird on the cover, or why I even bought her the journal in the first place.  Now the pale blue cover strikes me as an important detail. Blue. The color of sky and water. The color of expansion. The color of dreams I cannot touch.

_____________

Birds mediate heaven and earth. I love that word. Between. My mother lives in my memories, my dreams. She inhabits the in-between of her life and her death. She lives in that sentence, in the conjunction and, a bridge between two words, two worlds. Once I had a mother. Once I bought her a pale blue journal with a bird on the cover. Once I wanted to capture her hope in a book emblazoned with a quintessential image of hope.

But she left all her pages blank. She left all her pages for me to fill.

_____________

Do you hear the suggestion of the word “grave” in that sentence, an echo of gravar? I do. I can’t stop myself. Her burial, her resurrection live together on the page, where I recreate her and say goodbye, make her into a memory, a ghost.

I can see her now, standing in the Urban Outfitters aisle, sunlight glittering on the edge of her chin. She holds up the pale blue journal with a bird on the cover. She smiles, as if she knows something I do not yet know.

 

How to Survive the Holidays as a Grieving Person


1. Our dead are gone, and they are everywhere. They are absent, ever-present, the way some people talk about God.

2. Our dead come back. Again and again. When we least expect them, they shout, “Surprise!” For example, I lost all my mother’s recipes after she died. Barely 21, I couldn’t imagine living without her, much less becoming a person with her own kitchen and recipes one day. And yet, this year, I found a Taste of Home recipe that replicates a chocolate pizza my mother served at our Hanukkah Party each year. Melted down chocolate chips form the pizza’s crust. Cheese comes from dried flaked coconut. Melted maraschino cherries serve as pepperoni. I’ve decided to serve this dessert during my family’s Hanukkah celebration this year. When I place my own chocolate pizza on the dining room table, I suspect I’ll feel like my mother has returned to me once more, a most welcome and unexpected guest.

3. Headphones. I don’t know what I would have done without them the summer after my mother died, when I moved abroad to work at a newspaper in a country I barely knew. Each day, I’d walk from the flat where I stayed in Dennistoun, to the newspaper in the Glasgow City Centre, where I worked. The Cure sang me forward. I believed every song on one particularly tortured album was written just for me. With headphones on, I tuned into myself and a pain that might instruct me, if I learned how to listen.

4. Now I use headphones to tune out the nonstop Christmas anthems that play everywhere this time of year. I cannot bear the public performance of joy. There is no right way to be happy, just as there is no right way to be sad. Our memories bring comfort, and they bring knee-deep sorrow. Headphones help me tune out the less helpful noises of this season, help me quiet the expectation that happiness comes easily to us all, that happiness isn’t the battlefield of my life.

5. A path lit by joy and sorrow runs down the center of my heart. How bright, how beautiful. How lucky I have been.

6. When I am feeling at my worst, I remember I dared to love after I lost the person I loved most in the world. I do not believe in god or heaven or clear categories of afterlife. But I believe in salvation. I believe love saved me, just as love will save you.

7. Get out of town, if you can. Take a road trip, a flight, a ride on a boat. Make new memories, memories that are yours alone to cherish. After my mother died, a friend told me, “Life goes on.” She wasn’t trying to silence my grief. And she meant what she said. My life would continue beyond the point where my mother’s life stopped. I had to stand up and walk toward her death, walk past my grief, and understand there would never be a point where I surpassed my grief. But I could walk along side this unbearable loss, make grief my companion on a journey I barely understood, a journey that is mine alone to understand.

8. I chose to travel because I was young and could sleep in a closet and live on potato chips and candy bars. So I left my mother’s house. I left my country. I met my life for the first time. I cried every day, and I ate a lot of potato chips and candy bars. I gained ten pounds. I fell in love. I grew big with wonder and joy. I started to live the life my mother wanted for herself, which became the life I chose, and the life she wanted for me.

9. I am not religious anymore. But my favorite prayer is the V’ahavta. It literally means, “and you shall love.” When I was a little girl, I used to wait for this prayer during the Shabbat service. We sang those words over and over again, “and you shall love.” They are the only commandment I’ve kept from Judaism, the only prayer I remember and return to. These ancient words remind me that loss hurts in direct proportion to how greatly we have loved.

10. Even after I gave away all her clothes and scattered her ashes in the Chesapeake Bay, my mother’s love refused to leave me. The longer I live without her, the more powerfully I feel her love. It’s there when I wake up each morning and kiss my husband. It’s there when I write, when I listen to a friend in the midst of a struggle. It’s there when I refuse to lose my shit at my horribly behaved dog or a student who needs a second chance. And you shall love. My mother’s voice rises up in my memory, as fervent as the prayer I once chanted. Dead, she is everywhere, an ineffable god.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What We Carry

“Behind the story I tell is the one I don’t. Behind the story you hear is the one I wish I could make you hear.” — Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure

For years, I taught Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” My veteran students sat up straighter when we read from this story. Their voices rang out more sharply in class discussion.  These students understood the to-the-bone uncertainty of war. They knew how a pleasantry once taken for granted could become a refuge. They understood how love conflates with hope, and how both feed our will to survive. They knew grief as a burden we never set down, no matter what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has written.

I loved teaching O’Brien’s story. I loved seeing how people who did not think of themselves as readers dove deep into a text and met themselves for the first time, saw their yet untold stories shimmering back at them through art. I don’t believe in healing as an aspiration. I don’t believe in closure or happily ever after. I believe in integration. I believe sorrow has something important to say. I believe we wear our losses the same way we wear our scars. Sometimes out in the open. Sometimes hidden. Sometimes the burden of what we carry is only visible to us. Sometimes we need to hear: I see you. You are not alone.

 O’Brien’s writing acknowledges life altering experiences so many learn to hide in order to fit in, to keep the peace, to pass. He tells stories we learn not to tell. Stories about grief, shame, vulnerability, and failure. If I only do one thing right in my job, it is to affirm people who believe they do not have a story worth telling. It is to help them find words to tell that story, to say I see you. You are not alone.

The first book that ever said, “I see you. You are no alone,” to me is Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, which my first MFA mentor assigned during my first semester in a non-traditional MFA program. I entered that program unsure I had a story worth telling, only sure I did not want to be a traditional academic. I had recently completed an M.A. in literature program that felt toxic to me, particularly in how male academics related to power, related to women, related to anyone whose ideas threatened their sense of power.

My MFA mentor founded a women’s studies program at a state university. She left her traditional academic path to build her life as an artist. She gave me Allison’s writing, which told me “I am not here to make anyone happy. What I am here for is to claim my life, my mama’s death, our losses and our triumphs, to name them for myself.” Before I encountered those words, I actually thought no one would care about the story I wanted to tell, a story about a mother and a daughter, a story about what love looks like before and after loss, a story about what happens after the worst thing happens.

I am still writing that story. Today that story looks closer to a book than it has ever looked. It will become a book, and I hope you’ll read it! Lately, my book is being shaped by new ideas about how trauma and loss influence who we become, how we relate to ourselves, to others. I have been thinking of Allison’s words, “two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that if we are not beautiful to each other, we cannot know beauty in any form.” I am beyond fortunate to have found beauty in so many unexpected places. I work at a community college where people are so frequently beautiful to each other that I am daily moved to tears.

Recently, a colleague in another department shared Adverse Childhood Experiences research and articles with me. I read them at night, before I fall asleep. This might not be the best practice, because I find myself waking more frequently in the middle of the night, and going back to the research, which does not help my sleep. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this research, but I know it is feeding something nascent in me right now. I am hungering for what my students hungered for when they read O’Brien. Perhaps I want to understand my own experience against the experiences of others. I want to know if there’s more to thriving than simple luck.

My ACE scores are high. So too are my resilience scores. Even so, I have been diagnosed with PTSD, and my responses to perceived threats are probably similar to those of my veteran students. In traditional academia, I experienced profound silencing of people (and particularly women) who survived abuse. I experienced a culture that privileges thinking over feeling, a culture of negativity and hyper criticism and perfectionism. Now, I have learned how to recognize how beauty coexists with toxicity, how two or three opposing things can be true at the same time.

I have learned how to set boundaries, how to say no, and how to resist pressures to carry what is not mine to carry. And yet, I am still learning how to hold on, how to let go, how to find beauty in the grasping and the release.

Why Silence Is the Wrong Response

We had a neighbor who never said anything after my mother died. I kept waiting for her to say, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I’m sad your mother died.” Each time I ran into her, I expected her to offer a condolence. But she never said a word.

This woman was not a distant neighbor. She lived a few houses down. As a girl, I played with her children. She fed me at her dining room table. She told me stories about her own childhood.

Now, when I think about her, I do not remember the nice things she did. I remember her silence. I remember how her silence hurt me.

When she failed to acknowledge my mother’s death, my neighbor also failed to acknowledge my mother’s life. Her silence angered me. Her silence amplified my fear that my mother would not be remembered.

You see, the word remember means to reconstruct, to put back together. Remember is the opposite of dismember.

When a person remembered my mother, that person reconstructed the part of my mother that mattered. That person revealed the impact of my mother’s spirit in a world where her body would be forever absent. But silence erased her completely.

Silence is how the dead die twice.

A few weeks ago, I shared my post “How to Comfort the Bereaved” on Facebook. A few people commented that silence was the best response to bereavement. They reasoned that when we are silent in the face of another’s loss, we are safe. We do not risk saying the wrong thing.

I liked these responses because I understood their intent. I believed people genuinely believe they are doing the right thing by staying silent.

But I need to say now that I believe silence is the wrong response. I interpret silence as erasure. I interpret silence as cowardly. I interpret silence as taking the easy way out. Even well intended silence can have this effect.

We are not to blame for our silences. Modern society does not teach us how to speak openly about death or how to comfort the bereaved in meaningful ways. So we must teach ourselves.

In that spirit, here are a five things people have done or said that brought me comfort during a time of grief.

1. Say the word died. Do not say “passed away” or “met her maker” or anything else that belongs in a children’s book or cartoon. When you say died or any of its variants (death, dead, die) you reverse the spell of cultural denial that hangs over death for many Westerners. When you say died, you make the the subject of death less taboo, less shameful. You make it easier to talk about this normal bodily process that happens to everyone. You make grief and death less confusing

2. Be present. Invite a grieving person to lunch, to take a walk, or to another low key, low stakes one-on-one social event. After my mother died, lunch dates with family and friends saved me. Sometimes, I cried at the table but I also remembered what my life looked like before my loss. I remembered I used to be a girl who did normal things like eat pizza and laugh. I also glimpsed a little of my future: I could again be a girl who laughed and ate pizza. I could reconstruct my life around my loss.

3. Tell a story. If you knew the person who has died, share a story about what that person meant to you. At my mother’s shiva, my close friends told stories about my mother, stories I’d never heard until that day. From these stories, I learned my mother had relationships with my friends. They trusted and valued her. These stories affirmed something I needed to hear, that my mother would live beyond my own memories. She’d live in theirs too.

4. Send a card. If you do not know what to say, let the card speak for you and sign your name at the bottom. When you send a card, you let a grieving person know that the loss has not gone unnoticed by you. You relieve a grieving person from the burden of having to tell you about the loss. My sister saved a stack of all the sympathy cards we received after our mother died. I keep them in my attic now. Once a year, I look through each card and remember how many lives my mother touched. I realize the full impact of her legacy will never be known.

5. Say “I’m sad.”  The more common expression “I’m sorry for your loss” is not a terrible thing to say, yet it can feel like pity. But saying “I’m so sad X died,” extends compassion. Did you know compassion literally means “to suffer with?” Compassion is not supposed to be easy. Culture tells us to deny suffering and sadness, but grief lets us reclaim them. When we say, “I’m sad,” we turn away from pity. We turn toward empathy.