Monday, November 15, 2021

5 Ways You Can Help a Grieving Friend

It seems like an important time to share this again. Grief is disorienting and lonely. You can make a difference.

Note: *for health and safety reasons, during the pandemic, you may need to be creative in the ways you reach out. 


  1. Show up. Go to her house for a hug and show of support. Make visits brief, and look for cues as to whether it’s time to leave. If you see a tangible need, whether it’s for a jumbo pack of toilet paper or a dress for her daughter for the funeral, take care of it. I’ll never forget my friend Robin taking my broken glasses out of my hand and getting me a new pair to wear to my mother’s funeral. Go to the funeral, whether in person or virtually. You may feel like just a face in the crowd, but your presence is important. Then, mark your calendar for a few days or a week afterward to show up in a different way, such as stopping by with a latte and a hug. Do it again. Your friend will likely need you to initiate for a while, but if you remind yourself to “Just Show Up” physically and emotionally, you will help her heal.
  2. Memorialize and honor. Honor your friend’s loved one by attending events such as a vigil and any charity events held in his or her name. If you knew the loved one, write down your memories and give it to your friend. But it’s okay if you didn’t know the loved one—you are here to support your friend.  You belong! Yours could be the face she needs to see. As you support your friend in her grief, you will get to know more about her loved one, and that will help guide you in other ways to reach out such as donating to charity, planting a tree, giving a book to a library, or through a small gift. A special piece of jewelry, a book, a candle, a photograph of her loved one, or even a cozy robe in her loved one’s favorite color help your friend feel closer to her loved one, even as their tangible connection feels like it is slipping away.
  3. Listen. Your quiet presence or silent hug means more to your friend than any grand gesture or the "perfect" words. Showing up for a friend is scary because we are terrified of saying the wrong thing. That’s okay.  Words are next to useless at a time like this, so give yourself a break. A simple “I’m so sorry” or "I love you" and your presence are priceless. Your intention is pure, and your friend will be able to sense that. “Do you want to tell me what these past few days have been like?” might be a way to give her permission to open up if she wants to. But silence is okay, too. If you feel the words "At Least" moving from your brain to your mouth, force yourself to be silent.
  4. Remember: Remember the birthday of the deceased, and the anniversary or the time of year of his or her death. Call, text, or send a card. “I’m thinking of you today as you miss your mom.” Or, make a note to reach out on important holidays such as Mother’s Day or Father’s Day or other holidays that would be particularly meaningful to your friend. This could be the first day of school, or the opening day of baseball season. Don’t worry that you will be reminding your friend of her loss on those days. She is already thinking about it, and your quick card, email, or text will let her know you are too. Find a way to bring up the loved one’s name in conversation. The more you do it, the easier it gets, “I watched the Yankees play last week and thought of Jack.” “Your mom really loved summer, didn’t she?”  This helps your friend know that even though time has passed, you still remember that her life has changed.
  5. Don’t give up: Your friendship may feel one sided for a while. You may be tempted to back off, give your friend space, or let your friend reach out to you once she knows what she needs. You may even feel a bit let down that she seems to be relating to others more than you these days. Perhaps she has formed bonds with others who have experienced a similar loss and you are wondering what this means for your friendship. The key is to keep letting your friend know you care. Let go of expectations of how/if she will respond. Grief is extremely isolating and lonely, and if you can stave off some of that by being consistently present even if that is through texts, and (unreturned) phone messages.  Yes, your friend has changed due to her experience, but she still loves and needs you. And if you are willing to walk beside her in her grief, you both will be richer for it.

Show up.

Memorialize and Honor.

Listen.

Remember.

Don’t Give Up.



Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Birthday Season

 This is my birthday week, and birthdays invite contemplation.

I'm in a weird in-between place. Trying to make friends 15 years younger than I am, while also maintaining relationships with old friends who have moved to the next stage of life. New friends may not think I can relate to them. Old friends can love me and wave to me in the rear view mirror, but we just aren't on the same path. 

It's hard not to think of what life would look like if our nest had emptied in 2019, as was our plan. Would Tim be able to work less without the financial pressure of expanding our family? Would I be able to work more without the emotional pressure raising a child right now entails? Would both of us feel like we "fit in" a little better in our worlds? Would we be more rested? 

I'll be six years older than my mom was when she died. In many ways I still feel like the 18 year old whose mother went to heaven on a hot May day. I'm so proud of myself for all I've made it through: grief upon grief, difficult relationships, and feeling on my own much of the time. 

When my mom and Jack died, I was so hurt and angry for all they would miss out on. My mother never got to travel, enjoy an empty nest, or grandparent. Jack? Well, there are so many things you don't get to do when you die at 12. 

Over time, I've come to believe they are missing absolutely nothing! First, because I know the veil is thin and even though their physical bodies are dead, their souls are alive and right here with us. Second, because I believe there is no LACK in the afterlife. They are MORE than okay!

So today, as the weather grows cooler and I grow a year older, I miss them. I miss them for what they could be, physically, for US, more than for them. I miss Jack most of all for Margaret. And my mother? I miss her for myself. I miss the vast, accepting love of a mom who knows you and loves you regardless of where you fit in, even in middle age.

 Deep down, I think perhaps I just want to be mothered. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Life is Weird: When Worlds Collide

 



Sunday, Tim took Margaret down to college to get set up in a new apartment. In another life, I would have gone too, helping her organize her closet, treating her to lunch, maybe taking Charlie for a walk around a local winery. You know, grown-up, empty-nest stuff. 

Instead, I was on Andrew-duty. I'd hoped for a sweet mother-son day since he's been really busy with outdoor camp this summer. While he still loves me, he hasn't been trying to climb back into my uterus like last year.  Instead, he has become friend-obsessed. To his great disappointment, all the neighbors were either on outings, at the pool, or out of town. I remember this developmental stage with Jack, when he would peer out our kitchen window to see if his buddy across the driveway was awake. He'd run out the door in his pj's to greet him, often forgetting to put on shoes. Margaret was more content to stay home, or participate in whatever fun Jack drummed up.

So as Andrew and I rode scooters up and down the street, looking for someone to play with, I thought about how weird life is. A tired, sweaty 51 year old on her dead son's Razor scooter, trying to keep up with her 5 year old on his new, entirely too-fast one. Hours later he would smash his head on a driveway, at the exact spot his helmet did not protect, but that is a story and a worry for another day.

I remembered how Jack considered it a good day when his special friend was available, and a bad day if  he wasn't. I remembered how the worst day of all of our lives was a day that same little boy was available  when he normally wouldn't have been. And how playing outside that late afternoon changed everything. 

I realized how if it weren't for that moment, we wouldn't be experiencing this one.

I could feel September creeping into my bones. The dread and weepiness, largely kept at bay, but arriving early this year. Maybe because of menopause or the fact that Andrew is about to start Kindergarten. Maybe it's due to a year and 1/2 of worry, weariness, grief and disruption because of Covid. Yet most likely it's because the 10 year mark looms. 

I hesitate to write about that creeping feeling, because I don't want dear ones who are early on their paths of grief to recoil and feel they are doomed to despair so far down a road that seems almost inconceivable to them. For now they must operate in the day by day, and the hour by hour. Secondary losses will pile up in their own time, and no one needs my gloomy rumination to take them further into the pit than they already are. My passion and privilege these past 10 years has been showing that healing, peace, and even (real, unforced!) joy are possible after great loss. I'm a regular, flawed person who keeps showing up for life-- not the one I thought I'd have, but the one I do have. And I am utterly convinced that Jack is happy and he is right here with me. 

Most days I am even grateful to be parenting a little one, but it's something I have to dig deep for. It's no joke to parent again right when your nurturing and caregiving hormones have exited the building, and when your friends are "finding themselves"-- in new careers, relationships, or exotic locales. It's harder than I thought, and I thought it would be pretty hard.

Anyway, because I'm a woman and can keep 1,000 tabs open in my brain at once, all of these thoughts were on my mind as I walked, scootered, and watched for cars. A young man left my neighbor's house and climbed into his car. I had Andrew pull to the side so the car could pull out. The young man flashed a mega-watt smile as I waved him past, and all of my weird worlds collided at once. 

He wasn't just anyone; he was the special friend, the one whose days with Jack were his very best days, until the one that was everyone's worst. I don't know what the chances were for this encounter after so many years, in a different neighborhood, right at the moment I was pondering the intensity of young friendships, the potential (no, the certainty) of pain, and wondering if I'd have the strength to navigate it all again. I wondered what the young man was thinking, especially when he saw Jack's mini-me. What did he remember from those hot days so long ago? What did he make of me, a decade older, once a daily presence in his life, but then suddenly no more, because I needed to deal with my own family's trauma and let others tend to his?

I felt the sting of tears in my eyes, but kept on. We didn't find anyone to play with, so we ended up going to mini-golf, the ice cream shop, and the dollar store. Our very long day was a mix of highs and lows-- loneliness, hurt feelings, a tantrum, a scooter crash, deliciously sticky fingers, and a hole in one. 

I think in the coming weeks I will try to emulate early-grievers and re-learn to take things hour by hour and day by day. 



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IMPORTANT: If you subscribe to this blog by email, that feature is being disabled by the blog company in a few days. I do have your emails and will try to send posts to you that way, but it will no longer be automatic, and I am technologically impaired, so I can't promise I'll figure it out. I'm usually over on facebook at An Inch of Gray and Instagram @annawhistondonaldson and would love keep in touch that way too. XOXO


Friday, April 9, 2021

"Growing Old Gracefully" by I.P. Freely

Staying home during the pandemic was well-suited to the combo of my tiny bladder and huge water consumption. 

But things have started to open up a bit here with spring weather, devoted mask-wearing, and vaccines. We even signed Andrew up for t-ball. Last night was an hour-long practice. That, coupled with the drive across town, put my bladder right in the danger zone. 


After practice, we realized we needed to eat. You know I like eating and despise cooking, so we grabbed some food at an outdoor space in our town. 

I drank nothing with my meal and kept my legs crossed.


It was taking a while to get the bill, so I told Tim to wait for it and drive Andrew home in his car, while I raced  home to the bathroom. Those final seconds unbuckling Andrew from his carseat have gotten me in a wee bit of trouble before, so I was glad to be on my own. Tim eyed me suspiciously as if I were trying to pawn Andrew off on him for a few moments of alone time (who, me???), but he acquiesced.

All was fine until I reached our neighborhood. The trash cans were lined up for the next morning. I noticed one had a glass vase, that looked to be about the size of a large milk jug, sticking out of it. Not content to let it go a landfill, I decided to grab it. Perhaps it would like nice in our house, or I could give it away on our Buy Nothing group. 

As I pulled it out of the huge, wheeled trashcan, I stared in wonder. It was like a magician's scarf that just kept coming. What I thought was a sizable vase or jug seemed to grow as I reached deeper into the can, trying not to pee myself because of the numerous muscles involved. I placed it in the car, thanked my pelvic floor for making it this far, and climbed into my car. 

Then Tim drove by. 

He slowed down and asked what I'd been doing, but I silently waved him away with flailing arms, knowing if I had to explain why I'd been digging in the trash, I was going to wet myself. 

Moments later, I was in the garage. So many small victories: I'd attended a sporting event with my precious kid. I'd stayed out of the house for more than an hour. I'd saved the environment with my eagle eyes and brute strength hauling the vase into the car. The only thing that stood in my way was Tim, about to get Andrew out of the other car. I waved him aside again, my body bent, my face set in determination. I had the garage to traverse, then the kitchen, then a 1/2 flight of stairs down to the bathroom. 

Damn you, split level.

Then, as if he didn't know me at all. As if he hadn't been dealing with my tiny bladder since early 1992. As if he'd never been on a road trip with me. Or seen 3 babies' heads crown in my nether-regions, doing untold damage. He decided  to delay me with a smirk and, "You didn't LOOK like you were in much of a hurry to get home down on the road there." 

At which point I started to laugh. I thought of the world's biggest vase in my car. 

All was lost. 

I  crumpled to the ground, trapped between the car and the garage wall. The kitchen was close, but it might as well have been a continent away. I let loose a torrent like no other.  Andrew watched from his carseat. Tim looked on in horror and pity, trying to hold me up, but also avoid the splashing. 

A voice through the window: "Mommy always says she's going to pee herself, but this time I think she really did."

Anyone want a little vase? 



Photo credit: Newly-minted 5 year old. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

I'm Here

One of my favorite things for 4 year olds is the "basement play date." That last year of preschool before kindergarten opens up a child's world to the wonders of playing with someone else's stuff in the treasure trove of a basement or a playroom. Sometimes it even means going home from preschool in a friend's car, having a snack in an unfamiliar kitchen, and playing until mom picks you up hours later. Almost a whole day away! It's exciting, scary, fun, and an opportunity for growth.

The pandemic began shortly before Andrew turned 4. Now he's almost 5. So we were on the cusp of this magical stage right before everything changed. We canceled his birthday party at an indoor play place. (Sometimes I think this whole mess is my fault because as a germaphobe I threw caution to the wind to plan that kind of party in the first place!) Preschool shut down, and I became his primary playmate. 

If you ask Andrew today what his heart desires, it is to play inside a friend's house, and to have a friend come inside ours. Sitting inside McDonalds again is also pretty high on the list. In 10 months he has gone inside a Dollar Tree once, but no other stores or restaurants. 

I was thinking about all of the things he's missing and that I'm missing for him: church, sporting events, hugging his grandparents, and play dates are just a few. He has been resilient and adaptable, and I am so proud of him. I know for sure that I won't have to "play Legos" forever which, unfortunately, doesn't mean "build Legos"-- there are battles and backstories and I never seem to know what is going on, just that the clock seems to slow to less than a crawl when it's happening. 

Many, many people have lost so much more than my little guy. Jobs, physical and mental health, homes, food security, and a year of education slipping away and leaving those with "less than," with even less. 

And most especially, the death of family members.  

The death toll of covid is so VAST it is natural to start tune out, to not see each loss, each life as unique and precious. What seemed inconceivable in early March, is a daily reality that keeps getting worse, at least for now.

It's normal to see what's in our own home, our own families, and our own circumstances. I think it's valid and healthy to acknowledge and let my heart ache a little for some of the small losses of opportunity my little guy has had, and be genuinely sad that my big girl's college experience looks nothing like we'd all hoped. 

But when Andrew is finally playing in a friend's basement, and I am out of the lonely fog of my current circumstances and on to my "next thing," I want to remember them. Your grandma. Your sister. Your uncle. Your spouse. Your friend. 

This community has stood by me and honored Jack's death as significant for many years. Even as time has passed and the smaller issues of life have crept back in, you have said, "I'm here. Jack matters." 

I know I'm on Facebook and Instagram constantly and have been very quiet on the blog.

But I'm here. Your person matters. 




Saturday, June 27, 2020

Calendar Pages

I was talking to a good friend yesterday, whose young husband died suddenly a few years ago. I wanted to know how the new rhythms of the pandemic were affecting her family. How had they coped during the complete shutdown? "I mean, grief is already so isolating," I said.

Her reply landed deep inside me, because I recognized my own experience there. "It's been okay. In a way I feel as if the rest of the world has been catching up to where I've been for a while. That they are getting a taste of grief."

She didn't mean the many, many families whose loved ones have died from this brutal illness, a number that is unfortunately climbing by the day because our country does not have a well-coordinated plan on how to address Covid-19.

The "taste" she was referring to was the swift wiping clean of the calendar pages. When everything shut-down in mid-March, people took a sharpie and drew through weddings, work trips, school days, and social events and had to surrender to the uncertainty of when and if things would ever return to "normal."

People struggled to find a daily routine and felt rudderless when the rhythms they'd always known of work and school and even identity were upended. Jobs they thought they could count on disappeared, and they were separated physically from the ones they loved. The world outside their doors felt confusing and even dangerous.

And so it is with grief. Grievers know the stark Before/After well. They know the disorienting feeling of having a plan for how things were going to be, how one's life would look, then being left with the uncertainty of how to move forward when life turns upside down.

I remember my sister scrambling to find a new wall calendar for us right after Jack died, because the one on our kitchen door scrawled with things like, "Jack/Margaret dentist", "Boy Scouts", and "baseball practice", in all its normalcy, belied the shattered state of the family inside that door. It wounded us us with the could-have-beens. Each plan cut us to the bone.

Grief requires an adaptability and flexibility that is not innate or comfortable, right at a time when you are feeling ill-equipped to exhibit either. It requires a letting go of the expectation of how things were going to be, when your instinct is to clench your fists and try to hold on with all you've got. We deny and resist our pain as much as we can, but at some point we have to face it.  The longer we resist, the longer it lasts.

Grief is messy.

As is life in a pandemic.

It's important and even healthy to acknowledge our losses. To say, "I hate this! This is terrible! I wish it were another way!"

But when we continue to cling to the way things were, or the way we wanted them to be-- whether we are doing it because life is "unfair", or even in the name of "personal freedom" we can spew our grief, or our germs, on others.

Both are harmful; one can be deadly.




Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Awake

Hi Dears! I want you to know I'm thinking of you and sending you love at this strange time.

We are doing well, but being with Andrew 24/7 makes it hard for me to write.


Instead of sharing my own words today, I'm sharing my sister in law's thoughts on fear, chronic illness, grace, and this unique time we are in.

With so much love to you, Anna