My mom was a reader of your column. She even wrote to you a number of years back.
Sadly, she passed away two weeks ago. Of course, I am absolutely devastated by the loss. I returned to work when I thought I could manage well enough. Yesterday, I met with a colleague who lost a parent a couple of days ago. We ended up comparing notes about some of the things people have been saying to us (mostly people we work with). I know that many people do not know what to say to those of us who are experiencing a loss. Here is what I would like people to know:
I have lots of people to talk to, and if I do not regularly communicate with you outside of work, please do not ask questions about how my mom died, if it was expected, and/or how old she was. The conversation should go like this: “I am so sorry for your loss. Is there anything you need? Please let me know if you change your mind.”
I understand that people have good intentions and do not know what to say. Although I am functioning as best I can, I am struggling. Focusing on my job is therapy right now, and I do not feel like talking about my loss at work.
— C.M., Las Vegas
Your letter reminds me of the book “Dances With Wolves.” The book, not the movie. In the book, the protagonist tribe are Comanche, not Lakota Sioux. In the book, the author gives us a peek at the wisdom of aboriginal grief customs and rituals. These endeavors were not optional. The rituals were assigned to the bereaved by the medicine man. It would not have occurred to any Comanche man, woman or child to even consider refusing the ritual assignments.
In the book, we meet Stands With A Fist, a white woman who, as a child, was the sole survivor of a murderous Pawnee raid on her family’s homestead. The Comanche find her wandering the prairie. They take her in and raise her as a Comanche. She marries. Her husband, ironically, dies fighting those same Pawnee. And here we learn of the wisdom and the rigor of the ancient grieving rituals.
Stands With A Fist is isolated to a teepee at the edge of the village. No one save the medicine man is allowed to speak to her or even meet her eye. For weeks, she keeps to herself, still doing her share of toting water, working agriculture, preparing food and such that is the life of tribal people on the plains.
This is shocking to moderns. Why, oh, why would we deliberately isolate someone with a broken heart? Isn’t this cruel and insensitive?
We are shocked until, like you, we are in a state of acute grief. Then we would know. Then we would understand. I learned this as a priest when, at a post-requiem family gathering, I happened by the new widow in the kitchen by the coffee pot. With people milling elbow to elbow, she met my eye, leaned over and whispered, “I wish these people would just get the hell out of here.”
I was shocked, yes. But, slowly, it dawned on me for what the broken-hearted woman was longing. She was longing for quiet. She was longing for solitude. She was impatient to begin a journey of healing. And grief is a journey loved ones, friends and colleagues can encourage and support but never accompany. It is a journey that, ultimately, must be walked alone.
It is the very nature of significant grief to be, in its early stages, protective, veiled and territorial. Pre-modern people knew this intuitively. It is a fact that surprises us modern folks over and over again.
All that, C.M., to say “thank you” for your letter, reminding us again. When it comes to knowing how to be useful to sad people, this culture is sadly disabled and contextually ill-equipped. There are no medicine men (or women) charged with guiding and shepherding the workplace, guarding a holy circle of seclusion and respect. We are left individually groping and casting about, making it up as we go along.
I would tell your colleagues and co-workers, especially the ones who, as you say, are not “outside” friends, to move with subtlety and grace. Face to face, to “make normal” with you. And, if there is a desire to reach out with love and caring, to choose less intrusive, less presumptuous mediums: the sticky note, the email, the card, the one-line note of encouragement. To otherwise wait for your cue to engage more deeply or specifically.
In the meantime, C.M., your heart is devastated. Devastated by love. This is, of course, the great mystery of love. How do we grow the human heart? By allowing the heart to be devastated.
Tears are holy. I hope you are finding yours.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.