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.