Friday, February 19, 2010

Lessons in Kindness

I've learned some lessons this month that were never on my to-do list, but valuable all the same. Over the years I've attended funerals and wakes (or visitations, whatever you call them in your area), sent a few sympathy cards, and so on. Now, being on the receiving end, I've learned some things.

Five years ago both of my parents passed away within 10 months of each other. Those were hard days; even though both were elderly, I was not ready yet to lose them. After each death, there was an outpouring of sympathy and caring by family, friends and neighbors. It was comforting, but we were in such shock that I am not sure I fully appreciated the notes, cards, food, and flowers. I helped write thank-you notes and did what I could to help my siblings as we closed out Mom's and later Dad's life, came back to my home and mourned pretty much alone.

This time it's been different. Although again the services were in Virginia, a long way from my home, I saw just what the outpouring of help and sympathy meant. Flowers were everywhere; food came in huge amounts, cards arrived with each mail delivery. The phones rang constantly. At times it was overwhelming; we'd let the phone ring, let others answer the door because there is only so much a person can handle emotionally. But we appreciated each person's efforts.

Some things really stood out to me, and are the lessons I will take to heart:

-the top of my list is the man whose name I do not know who came on the day of the funeral in the blizzard conditions and cleaned our cars and the sidewalks before we left for the church. He followed us to the church and kept the vehicles cleared during the service. Then he again followed us to the graveyard, where he continued his duties. When we returned to the church for dinner, he went to the house and had the walks and drive cleared by the time we returned. What a guy. He did all that, and then just disappeared.

-second is the hardy, determined people who braved the terrible weather to come to the visitation and funeral; about 300-400 of them, we believe, drove through slippery snow and cold to be with us for the visitation. Some of Jon's workers came in their work clothes, straight from the job. I know he would have loved that. There were many more people at the service the next day than I expected--the roads were about 8 inches deep in snow and it fell so heavily at times we could hardly see where we were going. It meant more to me than I can say to know that they cared so much for my son they were willing to take on that storm and be there.

-third is those thoughtful souls who provided all the makings for coffee down to disposable cups and Splenda for the sugar-intolerant, the ones who brought big bags of paper products including toilet paper, and those who brought food and drink of all kinds (even the vineyard owners who dropped off 3 cases of wine). Some simply used disposable containers; others labeled their dishes. One noted on her cookies that they contained peanuts as a warning for allergic folks, and one included the recipe for her dish. Others wrote out baking/preparation instructions. My sister Julie and her husband brought a huge, ready-to-eat breakfast, and Theresa brought home-made, warm cookies. Judy supplied dozens of eggs. I have probably missed some who did things just as caring. Thoughtful and appreciated.

When we returned home, it was quiet and my house was warm thanks to the efforts of our good neighbors who came twice a day to care for our animals and fill the woodstove, our main source of heat. Because they did such a good job, our water lines did not freeze and the house was a comfy 70 degrees when we got here.

There were no flowers or food here, but an arrangement arrived the following day. Cards came by piles each day, many with handwritten notes that brought more tears, but these were good tears, the kind you cry when someone has done something special for you. Emails and Facebook messages along with the many loving comments on this blog helped me get thought the days until I got home, reminding me that I have an extended family across the globe who care too.

Oddly, no neighbors from Joe's Run have called or sent cards since we've been home from Virginia. This surprises me because I would call my neighbors caring people. Perhaps they think we're still away? Or maybe it's because I've been lax in that department myself over the years. A lesson learned.

What I have also learned during this month is what not to do. Don't say "If you ever need anything just call." A grieving person will not call. Make the call. Decide what to do to help and do it without asking. Most people will say, "Oh no, don't worry about it." Why ask? Just do it.

All food, notes and flowers do not have to arrive in the first few days. My daughter-in-law's neighbors have worked out a schedule to provide dinners for a month. How incredible is that? It's one less thing she has to worry about.

Continue to call later, weeks or even months later. If the grieving person doesn't want to talk, it's okay. They will appreciate your call--just knowing others remember and care helps. Talk about small stuff--dogs, children, flowers, gardens, books, whatever. Normalcy is good and if your friend wants to talk about their grief, they will.

It's okay to laugh. Remembering funny stories about the person who died, or even just funny things that have happened to you and sharing those is all good. Laughter heals, even when it hurts.

Don't ask "How are you?" What possible answer can there be to that standard greeting? Ask "What are you doing?" Even inane weather questions are better.

Send a favorite book, CD, or poem. Several friends sent poems to me that I will treasure. My brother Stephen framed a poem he wrote about Jon years ago, with a photo of my ever-moving son when he was young; I will treasure that gift. When my mother passed away, a friend gave me a copy of the book The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness. I read it in one sitting and have given to others in times of trouble and despair.

Don't stay away because you don't know what to say. Call or write and say "I don't know what to say." Listening is good and usually better than talking (I'm smiling as I write this--we all want to find words to express our sympathy, but every storyteller knows we receive more when we listen). Friends who have been through grief tell me they have lost good friends because those friends simply stayed away, afraid they would say the wrong thing or be speechless in the face of grief. Even those of us who grieve are speechless in the presence of this monster, but knowing our friends stand with us is immeasurable comfort.

Those are some of the lessons learned to date. I've shied away from funerals and even visitations in the past; I've been lax about sending cards or calling. I didn't think it mattered when the person was not a relative or someone I knew well. It does matter, and I will do things differently in the future.


Connie said...

Beautiful post, Granny Sue. I'm taking heed of your words I, too, have been lax.

Blessings on you and yours,

Farm Girl said...

Thinking of you. What you have written today will help me be able to respond better to others. I also have been one to stay away, not knowing what to say or do to help.

Anonymous said...

I agree, it is much better to say how sorry you are and listen, hold, cry or whatever with them than to say or do nothing. I learned alot from Mom and Dad's passing and more from Jon's. I have learned to be more compassionate towards others during these times. Love you,tm

Granny Sue said...

The goodness in people's hearts is humbling. We just never get lessons in grief, except by experience, and that's not the best time to learn. So we try, fumble for words, seeking to do the right thing or terrified we'll take a wrong step, say the wrong thing. Our efforts are always appreciated; I've been guilty of doing nothing but now I understand differently how to do this. Living is a hard teacher but the only one we've got.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, a person comes into your life, you know is so special and its taken away a lot earlier than you thought possible. God has a plan, and its never the way we thought it to be, but for some reason, it still impacts our lives without us ever knowing. You raised four beautiful sons, all were my nephews, and every one of them mean so much to me. You did an incredible job raising these young men. Pop always called them the four man wrecking crew, but they were inquisitive men that solved what was placed in front of them. From me? Sue thank you, as a parent you raised men that were never afraid to tackle anything. And they did! I will be forever here solving my own grief, but I will, and I have you to look up too. Stand tall Sue, and know you are loved more than most are saying.
Neighbors might be respecting this loss more than you know. Its ok to ask. I love you sister, with all my heart. Thank you for raising the men you raised

Carol Connolly said...

Thank you, sue, for being so honest and wise. all of us have been blessed by knowing you and for knowing Jon through you. Blessings, my friend.

Country Whispers said...

Kindness does matter.
Most of us just want to curl up somewhere and hide (be alone) when things like this happen.
It's wonderful that people are there to support us and keep our lives going for us while we take the needed time to grieve.
That is what great family and friends are for!
Wishing sunnier days for you and your family!

Courtney Towne said...

Aunt Sue! You mentioned The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness. That book was given to Maggie (maybe by you) and she gave it to me. After my brain tumor surgery, a friend was diagnosed with cancer, and I gave it to her. I have no idea where it is now, but it is probably helping someone!

Rebecca Clayton said...

It's a gift to all of us that you're able to share what you're learning. Thank you for your words.

I'm so sorry for your loss.

Nance said...

Sue, at funerals or "visitations" or times of need, I find anymore that I ask, with a hug,"you holding up?" It is received well . . . I think because we all want to "hold up". Meanwhile, I think of you daily and send positive thoughts and courage. Stay well and strong.

Granny Sue said...

I continue to learn from each of you. Thank you all for your wise words.

Nance, "holding up" is perfect. That is what we strive to do, as we know the one who is gone would want us to.

Courtney, I did give that book to you mom. How wonderful that she passed it on to you. The lessons in it have remained with me. I hope one day you can pass it on to someone who needs it too.

Janie B said...

I'm grateful for your words of wisdom. I don't often go to funerals because they are just too painful, full of memories of losses I've been through. I don't do enough for others in that position. Thanks for the reminder.

Theresa Marie said...

Thank you Aunt Sue..for thinking of others right now. How is it that with everything you are going through right now, you think of how to teach us all how to be better human beings? You are such an amazing spirit, full of kindness and love. After reading your blog tonight I have so many questions answered. I always thought to send a card or flowers later would refresh the pain to the recipient but I now know it would only refresh the feeling of being cared for and about. I love you Aunt Susie.

Leah said...

Cousin Sue, I love reading what you have to write. The way have responded to what has happened and are dealing with it is so humanly beautiful. What you have written here is very valuable advice. I also want to let you know that I am still thinking about you and praying for you. I don't remember Jon that well, I think I may have met him once at the reunion, but from your posts and stories and memorials I have started to understand what a wonderful person he was, and how very special to you and the family he will always be. Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

Laura said...

Thanks you,my friend. Sorry you had to learn these lessons. When my dad died I hated when people asked me how I was doing. I appreciated their thoughts, but wanted so much to tell them just being there was enough.

I smiled when I read about people bringing paper goods, including TP. That's my standard thing to take to people in their time of losss.
Another good suggestion is stamps. A friend brought those to my aunt when her husband passed away and it certainly helped with all of the thank yous.

Prayers continue for you and your family.

Maggie and Roger said...

I agree with Theresa. We have learned how to respond better. I get very tongue tied with my empathy sometimes, but I really want to be there for folks. Thank you for putting it so clearly. We love you.
I did get that book from you. :)

Granny Sue said...

Stamps are another good idea, Laura. I never thought of that, but you're right--you need a lot of them for all the thank you notes.

I'm glad you passed the book on, Maggie. It's that kind of book, needing to be certain places at certain times.

Jai Joshi said...

I was strongly affected by this post, Sue. So much of what you say is true, that a grieving person won't call, we have to make that call to them.

And I was especially affected by your experiences of people offering kindness to you. The man who cleaned your cars and driveway must have been a truly kind soul to do all that and then just disappear without even giving his name.

My thoughts and best wishes continue to be with you and your family.


Granny Sue said...

Another moment I forgot to mention: my granddaughter was wearing Jon's watch to the movies, and left the watch in the restroom. She was heartbroken, not so much at losing the watch as at the fact she left something so important to her. A kind soul turned the watch in and she was able to retrieve it the next day. The kindness of strangers.

Pam said...

I learned those hard lessons way too young. One to add:

HAM. Some acquaintances dropped by with a ham. I thought it a bit odd, it wasn't a casserold. But you know what? You can serve ham for breakfast, lunch OR dinner, hot OR cold! Versatile stuff, ham.

Kindness of strangers.... my husband was standing in the checkin line at the airport when I called to give him the very tragic news. He cried out and staggered a bit, so obviously those around him knew something was horribly wrong. At pre-boarding, a woman with a baby approached him, "Please help me board with my baby!" she said. It was Southwest, so he wound up sitting next to her. She plunked that baby down in his lap, and handed him a few toys. He played with the baby the whole flight home - a wonderful distraction during a horrible time. He never knew her name or saw her again, but she was an angel.

Wendy Perrone said...

Sue, thank you for writing this entry. It gives a wonderful road map to people like me, who are woefully inadequate at saying/doing the right thing when a friend is in such pain. Big hugs to you and Larry, and keep writing.

Granny Sue said...

Thank you, Wendy. If it helps others, it was worth writing. I only wish I had not had to learn these lessons is such a hard way.

Granny Sue said...

Pam, that is a touching story. She must have known he needed innocence and someone needier than himself to get through the flight.

Ham--you're on target! My son Derek brought over a ham last Friday and it has found its way into sandwiches, casseroles, breakfast and salads.

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