On an April Monday when I was eight and he was in his senior year at college, my brother, Tony, got a rare kind of pneumonia. By Wednesday, he was dead. Fourteen years later, when I was twenty-two and she was thirty-two, my sister, Sylvia, died of a cardiac arrhythmia. Tony had been my childhood champion and Sylvia my best friend. My parents suffered the loss of two grown children.
From neighbors, friends, relatives, and even mere acquaintances came an outpouring of casseroles, flowers, messages, and visits in the days after each death. So much food arrived that fitting perishables in the fridge was a challenge. So many flowers were delivered that we ran out of display space. The phone and the doorbell rang and rang and rang. Dozens of cards and notes arrived.
All this attention—knowing we were in people’s thoughts and prayers—gave my New England family and me a way of making sense of each day. The helpful rituals of grieving—funeral home calling hours, for example, or sitting shiva—only go so far. When the rituals are done, and even while they’re going on, there can still be a pile of grief to attend to. In living through the deaths of my brother and sister, I learned a lot about what people could do directly, one-on-one, that was and was not comforting.
Creating a Safety Net
To everyone who’s ever provided support for a grieving person after a loss: you make a huge difference. It’s an act of faith to proceed, because you are not likely to get a thank you from someone deep in mourning, nor to see any results from your attentions. But what you are doing is helping to weave a safety net, strand by strand. You are helping the bereft person not to drown in feelings of loneliness, panic, even despair. When life suddenly feels overwhelming, as it can after a death, mechanical operations get a person through the day: meals, even if grief has removed appetite; fussing with flowers; answering the phone, even if there’s not much to say; opening mail, even if what is read leads to tears.
There’s a need for this immediate kind of safety net, and then there’s a need for a longer-lasting one. For months after my brother died, a neighbor left my mother a small gift every few days: a perfect red apple; books on topics of mutual interest; some polished stones. Each offering came with a card: “Thinking of you. No response required. Love, Louise.” ‘No response required’ is important: it allows the grieving person to be supported without having to give back. Louise’s presents were tucked inside the front door, to be discovered when convenient. There was no need for my mother to be dressed for company, nor to summon up manners and conversation, “but I was reminded that life goes on,” she has said. “And being held in someone’s thoughts like that enfolds you and holds you up.”
For my grieving father, it was a helpful aunt who enfolded him . . . with kippered herring. He and she had long been breakfast companions who joined together in procuring and cooking the fish, then working together to air out the house after they’d consumed the stinky stuff. I did not hear my father laugh for months after Tony died, not until Aunt Kay came for a visit, held up a smelly butcher-paper-wrapped package as she headed for the refrigerator, and told him she’d see him at breakfast. They did their thing together the next morning as my mother and sister and I went to the farthest part of the house and opened windows. Maybe the breakfasters talked (although solemn conversation had never seemed to be part of their relationship) or maybe it was just a life-goes-on reminder, but soon my dad laughed more and he resumed skiing with me and playing checkers and tennis.
On the one-year anniversary of Sylvia’s death when I was still sunk in grief, I found an unexpected safety net at the cemetery. My brother and sister are buried next to my grandparents, each commemorated with New Hampshire granite surrounded by lily of the valley. On my grandmother’s grave is written “For life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is only a horizon and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.” I’d read the words before, but this time they reached me and ended the swirling, drowning panic whenever I thought about the foreverness of death and the forced separation from the sister I loved so much.
The comfort I get from those words has been felt by other mourners to whom I’ve sent the quote. If the horizon idea isn’t appealing to you, or wouldn’t be helpful to someone you’re supporting, there’s probably another saying that will be. Similarly, a kippered herring breakfast won’t do it for everyone, nor will books or a handful of polished stones. These fibers were particular to the safety net woven around my family—the extended net that held us up after each death.
On three occasions, surprising people provided a different kind of support. At age eight, when it happened for the first time after the death of my brother, I named it Being There.
Being There #1.
Bob was an ex-Marine Corps officer, with all the toughness and courage you’d expect. Although not a close friend of my parents’, he came to call a week past Tony’s funeral. The house was empty of guests for the first time in days. My father was in pajamas and robe: unknown to anyone outside the family, he had walking pneumonia which the doctor called “unshed tears.”
It impressed me that Bob was dressed up. I noticed his highly polished shoes and what I assumed were Marine Corps buttons on his blazer. What he did impressed me, too. After a very few minutes of small talk, he said to my parents and me, “I’m sad for you.” Then he spoke directly to my father: “Go in a closet if you need to, but don’t be so strong you don’t cry.” He hugged each of us and left.
Years later, on the day of my sister’s funeral, I experienced the Being There kind of support again. In a state of shock at losing the person who was my best friend, I have only two clear memories of the services and the reception afterward—two moments when someone connected with me, reaching out to where I was hiding behind my denial and self-control.
Being There #2.
My brother-in-law—generally a contained and unemotional man—took my hand and held it as we sat in the church pew. He neither looked at me nor spoke, but somehow we were sharing a hard time instead of each going it along. I felt desolate and abandoned at having to let go in order to find my handkerchief.
Being There #3.
A childhood friend of my sister’s, a man several years younger than she and someone I scarcely know, approached me at the reception. “I’d like to tell you what Sylvia meant to me,” he said, and went on to describe a time twenty-four years previously when he was being picked on and my sister came to his rescue. “I’ve always loved her for risking ridicule to look after me that day,” he ended, then shook hands and walked away.
These three men acted out Being There by making person-to-person contact without requiring a response—even, in fact, avoiding the need for one. Is it surprising that males came through in this way rather than females who are more traditionally associated with expressions of comfort? Perhaps Being There is more suited to the direct problem-solving abilities attributed to men. It is different from the safety net created by the mostly-female-provided bounty of food, flowers, phone calls and help with day-to-day arrangements.
Continued: Part 2