My body is aching, shoulders weary, with over 3000 miles before I sleep in my bed for one night. Then back out the day for another 3500 before I see my love.
This trip was worth every minute. Every sore muscle. Every flexed piece of grief and hope and solace. Every hand squeezed and bottle of water filled. Every floor swept and bag lifted. Every whisper shared and story heard. Every tear I bore witness to or held space for. Every moment. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
How could I? I had folks ask if I had any exciting plans for my birthday, but my answer had been no. Curl up at home with my dog, spend large chunks of time writing, maybe go for a walk. But when I got the call from an old friend that his partner had died…
The process for the days after the death of a loved one is interesting. Having lost my mother this summer, there was a lot to do. Paperwork, more paperwork, tell everyone, make service arrangements, talking third person about the person you saw just yesterday when they were alive… and everyone else telling me about their grief and the people they had lost. My mother had passed away, but within a breath, so many were talking about their own deceased mother.
But losing a child is different. Losing a spouse is different. To quote Jamie’s mother, whispered in the kitchen, words I had heard before from others… No one should have to outlive their child.
I’d never born witness to the small-town drop-by effect. I’ve heard of the “bring by a casserole” concept, but this time saw it up close and personal. I’ve always lived in big cities in apartments, many folks I knew living hours away. But here, people stopped by.
Both she and her wife had grown up in the area, and those who knew her wanted to bring something by and pay their respects to her spouse(s), her mother, her friends, her tribe. Family and friends poured in, people in their own places of grief. With a casserole.
Is there anything we can do? He mumbles no, but thank you. I gently put my hand on his shoulder and asked: do you mind if I contradict you? He blinks at me and says sure.
Are you saying you’re available to help do projects that would help make their life easier? They nod their head.
My people (my mother, her mother) have a tradition. It is the way of our people. Being there for people is great. But setting them up for success when we cannot be there matters. In these moments, very few folks have a chance to do it. Though a casserole is a great start (if there is space in the fridge).
Jamie died on Friday. I still keep being surprised by this, even though I am quite aware of it all. Her gloves are even on my hands as I write this. But I still find myself surprised. Her partner was who called me, but it was her wife, who she had been with for 12 years (longer than she had been with him), was who had all the local support. My friend. That is who I came out for.
Both Jamie and her wife were from the area. My friend, her simultaneous partner, is not. We know each other well from other times of duress and peace alike me. He took me into his home barely knowing me in a tough time, years ago. I adore him.
I came in and I played back-stage operations director. I played hand-squeezer and story-listener. I cleaned, organized, created space. I helped people learn what needed done. I made a list that is now posted in their kitchen:
You Want To Help Out?
Thank You! You can…
- Love the beings in this home
- Wash Dishes
- Take out the trash and recycling
- Laundry (wash, fold, put away) – starting with things in laundry basket
- Clean bathroom(s)
- Clean floor(s)
- Sweep stairs
- Give hugs
In many cases, what people want to know is how to help. Taking out the trash may seem like very little, but when people are dancing with the various stages of grief or living a chaotic moment, it can be a big deal. An appreciated act of service, especially when given with a free heart rather than as someone waiting for heaps of praise. People in duress don’t have energy to give heaps of praise.
Within the concept of Love Languages, there are five major ways we show love. Gifts. Touch. Words of Affirmation. Quality Time. Acts of Service. In dating this looks like flowers, cuddling, sweet whispers, long hours together, and taking out the trash.
In grief, the same applies. Some people give their love in times of grief bearing a casserole, sending flowers, bringing over a stuffed animal to squeeze. Others are here with a hug, a hand squeeze, someone to wrap their arms around you while you bawl and shriek. There are words of condolence, funny stories shared, asking to talk. Quality time is shared by just being there – sleeping over so that they don’t have to wake up alone, watching tv together, sitting there while they share their rambling truths.
When it comes to others, being helpful is how love is shown in times of grief. Let us do something, anything. How can we help? It is not an inconvenience to ask such people to do something. Yes, during such windows almost anyone will be willing to make a run to the grocery store, but others are fueled by it, grateful for the chance. Yes, our sore muscles scream, but let me show you I love you. Yes, our hands wet with cleaning products, but it is because I want to tell you I miss her too.
I won’t be there for the services this Saturday. But I was there for when it mattered, amongst my people. It won’t be enough, nothing really will be. Losing a partner is a dance. Layers of pain unfold this week, but more will be found next week when everyone has stopped coming by with casserole. Then three weeks from now when you go to make her breakfast and she is gone. Four months later when you come across her favorite shirt. Six years from now when you want to tell her a story that happened today.
Her mother stood next to me, asking if she could do something. In her eyes it burned, the notion that she couldn’t do anything to save her daughter… couldn’t she at least fold the clothes for their spouses? She told me stories from Jamie’s childhood, passing down the beauty like gems into my heart. She needed quality time, and how could I not give it? Taking care of the laundry alone for someone who wants to be doing it themselves, after all, is not showing love. It is providing for our own ego.
Later that night, I sat next to her mother and held her hand on the couch. Both of the girls’ mothers asked if they could bottle me, but I’d rather spread this thing I do. Taking it apart, these are my major techniques:
- Go into a space and don’t ask what needs done- look around and see what might be done and ask if you can do that thing you see, or if they’d like something else. Someone in duress oftentimes can’t quickly come up with want they need.
- Think ahead to three weeks from now – what do they need to have to slowly start normalizing a new life? Help others start getting those things.
- Talk to the people in a local network and plant seeds to get them to stop by (or call, or invite to parties) next month, not just next week.
- Hand projects to other people when you come up with them. You shouldn’t do it all yourself. There is often too much that needs done.
- Spend a mix of time with people, and spend time alone. Replenishing my battery is the only way I can fully replenish theirs. If you feel frustration or resentment, this is the best cue to step away rather than stealing their pain to make it your own
- Get everyone water. Don’t ask if they want any. Take their water bottle slowly, refill it to 2/3, return it to their hand. And if they haven’t picked up that bottle in an hour, pick it up and put it in their hand, while touching their shoulder and asking for their eyes.
- Ask for their eyes. Remind them that you see them, and are not there to sweep away their loved one. You are there to share love, and you can stop and sit with them at any time. You can get to the laundry sitting in the dryer in a few hours if needed.
- Don’t try to fix them, or tell them they shouldn’t grieve
- If other people offer to help, sneak them away and find out what skills they have. Put the guy who gets distracted easily on the task getting dishes washed over in a corner, while handing the bathroom cleaning to the woman who just said she used to do it for a living. If the computer tech wants to put up some info website, go for it, let him…
- As long as it doesn’t make more work for those in grief. If at all possible, don’t bring them more work. Bring them ideas, or better yet, answers. If it’s a question, yes/no is often easiest. But no extra work is even better.
- Drink water. Go to the bathroom. Eat. Eat some more, and not just the candy. (which I do when stressed, I admit)
- Pay attention to them without hovering. If you notice people using a specific “comfort” statement makes their shoulders raise up, tell that person off to the side that that statement isn’t as comforting for as it could be, could they try a different tact? Better yet, give them examples from what you have seen them reply well to.
- …and remember that the golden rule doesn’t apply. Don’t do unto others as you would have done unto you. Do unto others as they want done. If they say what they need is someone to sit their asses down and watch the football game, don’t complain and say “don’t you want me to do something bigger?” Watching the game may be the biggest service anyone has done for them in a while, and what will truly help.
We each process differently, and help differently.
I am going home with her gloves on my hand, her hanky in my back pocket, and a sore back. Tonight, I will hop in the hot tub, and smile thinking of her. I will keep telling her stories.
Jamie flew like a beautiful being, aerial in my ropes wearing her tutu. She laughed and cried with passion. She made me shake my head with a smirk. Jamie was funny, complex, beautiful. I was her uncle Lee.
The night before she died, she was craving ice cream cake. The only one at the grocery store said “Happy Birthday” on it. She had a piece before she went to bed that night, and never woke up.
I had a piece for my birthday, in the same living room she had her piece the night before. I went upstairs, and while folding tee shirts, I silently smiled, saying thank you for my birthday cake. Thank you for dancing on this plane for a few decades. You left quite the impression my friend.