Two weeks ago my family suffered a sudden and tremendous loss. My only aunt died while mowing her yard one Saturday morning. That day, phone calls from members of my family, text messages and the simple words, “I love you” took on new meaning. My kids lost a great-aunt who was the epitome of southern hospitality. My mother lost her only sister. My three first cousins lost their mom. The mom that each of them had spoken to the day before, only to realize they would never speak to her again.
From time to time I’ve written about my cousins, because as an only child, they have been everything to me. I wrote a poem for them that was recited at my wedding, I say the term like a badge of honor, and when they hurt, I hurt. All of them. Even though there are hundreds, I believe they all hung the moon. If there is such thing as cousin hierarchy though, my three first cousins sit at the top of the food chain. On sibling day, I celebrate them. My kids refer to them as their uncles and aunts, and since I’m the youngest, there is not a problem in the world that they can’t solve. When I had cancer, we held a conference call to talk about my treatment options and prognosis. I trust them.
Because they hung the moon. And people who hung the moon can do anything.
That fateful day began with phone calls from my cousins. When they started calling me early, I knew something was wrong. When I couldn’t answer the first call and it rolled to voicemail, I got another call from another cousin. When I couldn’t answer that call, I got a text message that said, “CALL ME NOW.” And before my fingers could type “Give me 5 minutes, I just got out of the shower,” the phone rang again.
Without any further warning, our family was thrown into the immediate stages of grief. To say there were other things I would have rather been doing with my time was an understatement. Grief is hard. Grief is painful. Grief is heart-wrenching. For me, the sudden and unexpected grief led to a flurry of emotions I was not ready for. Especially since I now had to relay the news to my children, my parents, and others while figuring out the quickest way for my car to get on I-20 and head eastbound because…the cousins. The fact of the matter is this: we will all have to go through grief and loss at one time or another in our lives. Unfortunately, as we move through our grief experiences, we will have to do other things…like everyday things. Even if life ends for a person, it continues for the rest of us.
At least it’s supposed to. And the five stages of grief that we’ve heard about on Oprah or Dr. Phil or even Facebook? I’m feeling right about now that there are actually 25 stages because it still feels like most days my emotions are bouncing all over the place. If there’s not 25 stages, maybe I’m just processing the 5 stages 5 times I suppose. At this point, the truth is that on any given day, I could be in any stage, and more often than not, I have no idea what stage it is.
When my cousins’ father died two years ago after suffering through a long illness, I knew he was in a much better place and no longer miserable. But I wasn’t sure I could say that for my aunt, who only days before her passing visited my mother, told my daughter about the mechanics of composting, and insisted on cooking for church and community events with the love and joy of any world-class chef. Honestly y’all, and I read the Bible and pray a lot, I wasn’t ready to say that she was in a much better place. My mind knew it, but my broken heart did not.
Somehow, as things always do, even though I was broken-hearted, I was able to jump into action fairly quickly. This death was close, and because it was close, I knew I could be on the funeral planning front lines. My cousins were still dealing with their father’s death two years prior and not only did they lose their mother, they had to plan a funeral and handle all of the family business. Without knowing what to say or do, I made a decision that one thing that would guide this grief journey for me. I decided to allow my personal strengths to guide me in helping the rest of my family. The first strengths I thought of were my ability to listen, my ability to write, and my interest in technology. Before I opened my mouth to offer anything to anyone, I asked God to allow me to use the strengths that he gave me in the best way possible and be of the best service possible to my family.
Take a look at the last sentence above. Have you ever prayed that prayer before? After I prayed it, I had an interesting realization. I have always prayed that I could use my strengths to get a good job and to be a good employee but I never prayed that my strengths would help me be of service to my family. In death, my aunt taught me to use my strengths and be of service to my family. Love them. Serve them. Teach them. Explain it to them. Listen to them. Write for them. Proofread with them.
In the first few days surrounding the death, that decision ended up being the best decision I could have made. I felt it at the time and in fact, I thought it was so great, I sent my friend Cheryl a text message with the exclamation that I knew how this death in my family was going to help my family the most. I even hashtagged it #waystosupport.
Clearly, being a blogger and a social media consultant is a lifestyle.
The very first premise when looking for #waystosupport someone close to you is to use your strengths handle the daily tasks for someone who is grieving. If you are a good cook, cook for them. If you are good with travel plans, call and reserve a block of rooms at the closest hotel for out of town guests.
Don’t ask, just do it.
Based on my strengths, I offered to write the obituary, help with the layout of printed program, and take photos throughout the weekend of the visitation, funeral, and burial. You could have seen me beaming with pride as I knew I was supporting my cousins through my strengths. As we were well into funeral planning that week, though, I realized another important lesson about #waystosupport.
The best way to support someone who is grieving is by giving them the space to be vulnerable enough to tell you what they need from you. And then giving it to them.
My cousins were happy when I offered to write the obituary and help with the funeral programs. They were even happier though, when they asked my opinion about the casket selection and I spoke honestly. They were especially happy when they asked me to send a few emails and field phone calls on their behalf and I did it the few times they asked, but made sure I shared my personal contact information with those who I may not have known personally, but who were their friends. They appreciated the fact that when they asked me to sit beside them during the funeral service and provide my shoulders for tears and my hands for the tight grips of fear and sadness, I did it. And they were most happy when I was vulnerable and honest enough to tell them when I was hurting and I needed a break from all the logistics of a funeral, but after my break, I came back to do some more.
Grief is about vulnerability. While the support you give starts with your strengths, supporting loved ones through grief is about your willingness to trust the process, know that it hurts, take a break when you need to, but return to keep the focus on them.
The night after the funeral, I took a nap, and a break, and as we later dubbed it, “had a moment.” The best gift I gave my family in their time of grief was to be vulnerable enough to laugh with them, cry with them, and tell them when I was having a rough time. For two hours, I cried and processed my own feelings without feeling like I was in complete control. I also continuously prayed for God to show me other ways to support my cousins. In that moment, it helped them to help me and before we knew it, the four of us were laying across their parents’ bed laughing about the most random of things and taking selfies.
Times of grief tend to make us say we need to appreciate life more, take time to rest and create valuable memories with loved ones, and focus on what’s really important in life. Here are a few other tips I learned that are #waystosupport your grieving friends and family.
- Disable the Do Not Disturb option on your phone. Sometimes the cousins and I needed to talk after 10:00 pm. Sometimes it was silly and sometimes it was sad. All of it was necessary.
- Tell the people you love that you love them. Say it daily. Thank them for what they do. Thank them for just being them. Don’t worry about it feeling weird or uncomfortable. If it’s true, then you say it. Every. Single. Time.
- Realize that they may change their minds about something during the funeral planning process, and that’s okay. Blue casket, black casket, gray casket. As long as a decision is made by the final deadline, it’s okay if it changed.
- Share your contact information. If you have to send an email or a message on behalf of the immediate family, include your personal cell phone number in the signature. Friends and coworkers and associates will appreciate the ability to talk to you because they know your family members are busy. They just want to know that their person in all of this is okay.
- Recognize that there’s no right way to grieve. If someone is not processing the grief that way you think they should be, move past it. They will process it in the way that feels best for them.
- Give yourself a week or two or three for re-entry. There’s no need to return to your life and hit the ground running. Even if you think there is (as I did), you may not have the energy to do something with the energy it deserves.
Let’s continue the discussion, how do you grieve? What advice do you have for grieving families?