Good Grief

What are gifts, and your gotchas?

One of my natural gifts is the ability to connect people and ideas who / that need to meet. I can no sooner fail to connect two people who need to meet than I can stop breathing.

On the other hand, one of my giant “gotchas” is grief — my own, and supporting others.

What go-to resources help you navigate how to comfort people? Or it is something you’ve always just done with the complete ease of breathing?

This week, my Canadian family lost a beloved canine member. 

The Beloved Jasper Dash, “Dog heaven’s goodest boy”

I appreciate, though not from personal experience, the deep bond that so many people have with the animals in their lives. In some cases, people feel a deeper connection with animals than they do with other humans. Jasper was a cherished member of my brother’s family for nearly two decades. This was a giant loss for them, and for everyone who spent even a few moments, as I did, in his loving presence.

I’m so far away, and my heart aches for them… and, again, for all my family and friends who have suffered wave after wave of losses over the past year.

Coming back to my post yesterday, of do versus be: often not only are there no words that can comfort, but so many ways that saying the wrong thing can make it worse… and saying nothing can be worst of all (I made that mistake once and, years later, still apparently have not forgiven myself for that inadequacy). 

Susan Silk and Barry Goldman’s “Ring theory” offers some helpful insight: It’s important to not make things harder in ways that, in effect, end up demanding comfort from people who are already in pain. 

The idea of “better to have loved and lost” isn’t helping me much.

Emotional stuff and perfection basically almost never cohabit. At least, not for me. One of my collection of critics happily hopped up to ask, “What is wrong with you?” My instinctive response to loss and death is to go numb. Emotions? Ziplocked and packed off down to the freezer in the basement. 

Nope, not the right answer.

Gary Chapman’s love languages inspire some ideas for ways I might offer support: Talk, time, touch, things, tasks.

The isolation of pandemic narrows the list of options, and/or makes adaptation challenging: some of the pretty-good wordless options like hugs (provided I remember to ask for permission to offer a hug, because consent) and lasagna (so long as I can find out who’s lactose intolerant, who’s vegan, and who doesn’t do gluten) are next to impossible long distance. Is it better to send flowers no one wants, or food no one can eat, than to just sit there thinking of someone and doing nothing?

A friend of mine who’d had cancer was dumbstruck by the number of people who didn’t know what to say when they got the news, and so said nothing. Months later, he recounted, they would tell him, “Oh, I’ve been thinking of you!” and what he wanted to say to them (and didn’t) was along the lines of And how could I possibly have known that? What good was that to me?

So, how much am I expected to get right? Or how much leeway do I get for getting things wrong?

I’ve had my share of being the person who panicked at the prospect of saying the wrong things and said nothing, and having that go really badly.

Words, words, words. I like them, but I also get scared to get them wrong because they can land powerfully when they do. I struggle to find ways to tell and show my family I love them and support them in both word- and non-word-ways that don’t land flat…and fail much of the time. I’m happy to just hear from them any time, any mode, any way. 

I would do well to remember that the family member whose posts I most admire, posts that always seem to have the right tone and warmth and words and timing, is also someone who has a graduate degree specializing in counseling, mediation and human communications. So she is someone to learn from, not feel compared to or judged by.

Silence from them brings my gremlins out to dance again, wondering what I got wrong and how I might have hit some unforgivable tripwire… When likely the only thing going on, day after day, is that they have more immediate and urgent concerns than getting back to me. 

This is where Brene Brown’s principle of “Generosity” is extremely helpful: my emotional life gets much less fraught when I disengage the gremlins by reassuring them that whoever it is is doing the best they can (and revived, just today, my hope of receiving over a thousand dollars in good faith that I’d written off last November as bad debt).

Humans have communicated tremendous emotional depth with written words (I know this from the personal experience of having courted, and been courted by, my husband via six years of hardcopy letters that fill a file drawer). Decades of electronic communication, and particularly years of text, keep teaching me that text is especially lacking in nuance. However uncomfortable an audio or video call can feel for me and others, part of the reason it feels that way is that it’s VULNERABLE. Voices, and especially faces, communicate things far deeper than words often can, and video requires being 100% present. 

It’s easy to make resolutions now, but here is one of mine: I resolve to remember that words, and things, are not the only way. That it’s okay to just sit and be with someone and not have to say anything at all. I mean, there’s even a wiki for that, cleverly entitled It’s not like there are no places to research ideas.

Whether I’m working with words or any other medium, things worth considering:

  1. Thoughtful effort (not just lobbing something over the internet transom) is important even though I have no control over how it’s received despite my best efforts.
  2. I can expect to be judged on outcome (how someone felt) not intention (how I hoped they’d feel), and I have no control over that.
  3. Getting things wrong is part of being in human relationships, and it happens a lot.
  4. It’s better to be in relationships, and “fall-down-go-boom” and apologize and learn, and hope for the grace of forgiveness, than to stay silent and have a score of zero errors but zero attempts. Getting stuff wrong is part and parcel of what it means to be human, and being in connection, imperfect and sometimes achy connection, is far, far, better than being isolated.

And… lots of other people get things wrong, too. So if I try and get stuff wrong, I am not alone. I’m just one more person trying to do my best for and among and with the other people around me.

It’s not insincere to have a “starter list” of four reasonable not-unequivocally-wrong things to choose from, someplace to go to, to pick something to say in response to someone who has suffered a loss. 

My family member with the graduate degree in knowing how to say the right thing has had a lot more practice than I have at saying lots of things. It’s reasonable to assume that she’s also had lots of her own experiences at getting things wrong. As I recall, she’s shared some of those stories, too, to help others understand how emotional learning happens.

It’s the journey we’re all on. 

Thanks for being on it together.

2 thoughts on “Good Grief

  1. Pingback: Let There Be Cake | Arising

  2. Hey Judy! I’m sorry to hear about your family’s dog. I understand that Judy, sometimes things you say may be the right or the wrong thing… We live and learn, and we just have to keep pushing forward alongside other people. We’re all on it together, for sure Judy. Thanks – Leighanne


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