There are a lot of things I wish you knew about grief. I mean, there are a lot of things I wish I knew about grief. It’s still pretty new to me, I lost my dad in October. When my dad was diagnosed with a stage four cancer his prognosis was not good; 12-15 months. After those months went by, he spent six weeks in the hospital and then in hospice care. We knew it was coming – but that certainly didn’t make it any easier.
Grief is not one size fits all. Everyone processes the pain and other associated feelings much differently. You can’t possibly know the pain unless you’ve gone through it, and even then, it varies for each person. There is no “right thing” to say when someone loses a parent, sibling, or a loved one. Things are said and condolences are given but while well-intentioned, cause more hurt than relief. There are no handbooks or guidelines, but there are words of advice from grieving people like me. After reading this, I hope you may be better able to understand what this type of loss feels like and at the very least know something you can say to truly make a difference.
Everything happens for a reason. I’ll start off with this one; don’t say it. I don’t want to hear it. Please don’t tell me I lost my dad because everything happens for a reason. I wish I could explain how much that simple phrase feels like a punch to the gut. Essentially you are telling me that there’s a reason my dad will not walk me down the aisle on my wedding day. That there is a reason my future nieces and nephews will never know the most amazing man ever and call him grandpa. That there is a reason the woman who loved him will not spend the rest of her life alongside him. Please do not tell me that there is a reason my family has to spend each holiday, birthday, and everyday without our dad. Please, for the love of God, do not tell me everything happens for a reason. Instead try saying “I know it’s hard to understand why these things happen, but I’m going to be here for you.”
It could be worse. Okay, realistically, could it? Probably. But right now, in this very moment, I am going through the worst thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. The pain is very raw and exceedingly real. I’m learning to adapt to life without a person I talked to every day. If you’ve never gone through it, then you really don’t know how much worse it could be; and until you do, there’s nothing worse. I can promise you that. Saying that it could be worse is basically telling me that I should feel guilty for feeling sad that I lost someone I loved. Maybe saying“I can’t imagine how you feel,” might be a better option.
How are you? Sounds harmless. But within the first month I honestly A.) don’t know the answer to that question and B.) am probably not going to tell you my innermost feelings. Instead you’ll hear me say “I’m hanging in there” or something to that effect. “How are you?” seems sweet, compassionate, and genuine. But be honest with yourself: do you really want me to answer that? Do you really want me to say “I’m doing awful. I cry every night, I block out emotions, and I don’t think I’ll ever be okay.” I tried that once and the person stared blankly back at me, obviously not expecting that answer. Instead, try “I hope you’re hanging in there.”
If there’s anything I can do to help, just call me. This is one I struggle with A LOT. Mostly because I’ve said it to my friends going through difficult situations. I’ll be honest, if you say that to me, chances of me calling you are slim to none. Not because I don’t want your help, but because I don’t want to burden you. I can’t think of many things more awkward than calling someone up and saying “Hey remember that time a month ago? I need that favor” Instead of saying that; just do something. The day I lost my dad, my best friend brought over tons of amazing food from our favorite BBQ joint in town. We were starving, fatigued, and had no more tears left to cry. I’m pretty sure pulled pork saved me that day. In the days and weeks that followed, neighbors continued to drop off meals, friends sent gift cards and care baskets, took our dog out for us, etc. Those are the things you can do; the things that might end up on the back burner as we’re coping. My dad always taught me never to judge someone by what they say but rather than by what they do. So when in doubt always act – those acts of kindness are what I remember and cherish most about friends who stepped up in times of need.
What people going through grief want you to understand is that the gravity of what we are feeling is something far more than what we can explain. Anything can set off an “episode” of grief. Songs, smells, foods – literally anything. We might be mid-conversation and all of the sudden I will become overwhelmed with a wave of grief. This will happen most likely for the rest of my life. They say “it gets easier,” but it doesn’t. It never gets easier; it just changes. You learn to hold back the tears, you learn not to wince when that song they always sang in the car with you comes on, you learn to smile through it. It doesn’t get easier, it gets different. My dad always said “time flies whether you’re having fun or not,” so as time passes and life moves on, the pain remains the same. Life marches on whether we are ready or not.
For me, I constantly feel numb; an everlasting feeling of nothingness. No highs or lows, just nothing. So please do not be offended if I don’t laugh at your jokes or don’t respond to something you said. Sometimes I don’t have the energy or I quite frankly have nothing to say in return. It gets to be exhausting pretending that everything is okay.
This is important. Please do not feel bad about talking about your parents or loved ones in front of someone who’s grieving. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a conversation with someone and they’re mid-sentence saying “Yeah my da- oh…I’m sorry,” and they quickly change subject. Please don’t do that. Don’t feel guilty because you have a dad and I don’t. In fact, it kind of makes my day when people tell me cool stories about their dad because that allows me to also tell cool stories about mine. It’s always helpful. My dad was amazing. He was loving, funny, sarcastic, and could start a conversation with absolutely anyone. I love to tell those stories because it’s a small way for me to keep the spirit of my dad alive.
Grief is complex. It is so much more than I am able to express through words on a page. It’s like an endless roller coaster that no one has ever gotten off of, so no one can tell you how it ends. I’d give anything to call my dad and hear his voice one last time or give him one last hug. I can’t do either of those things but I can urge anyone reading this to hug their parents, loved ones, and anyone you care about – because one day, you’ll no longer be able to. One day you’ll experience this pain and wish people around you could understand it.