Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Together Through Pain {Unexpected Death}

Are you ready for the next guest post in the "Together Through Pain" series? Again we'll look to someone who has actually walked through the tough stuff for advice on how to give truly helpful care to the hurting. This post features Melanie whose Dad unexpectedly died. Melanie (affectionately known as "Mel" to all who know and love her) lived Stateside when she lost her dad 10 years ago. She now lives in Hong Kong with her husband and daughter and writes an entertaining blog which you can find HERE about life's joys and trials, and the journey of how she moved from her hometown in Virginia to one of Asia's biggest cities. Now let me turn this post over to her as she opens up to us.


Sudden Death
"Dad had a stroke," my brother said as I picked up the phone at my workplace. Since I couldn't leave work at that moment, I consoled myself by thinking, "It will be a while before he finishes tests and x-rays anyways, so it'll probably work out better to visit him in a few hours."

But what none of us knew, was that we had already said our last words to Dad. The stroke had caused severe brain hemorrhaging, and my dad would spend the next six days in a coma, shocking all who knew him with his sudden passing that Saturday.  

The author and her father

Left Behind
We were bewildered. Dad was literally "here one day and gone the next", leaving behind a wife, four kids, a boat business, and countless other grieving friends and relatives. Grief mingled with questions. How did this happen? Did we miss the signs? How do we plan a funeral on such short notice? What should we do with his boat business? And then there's questions about the future. Who would usher my sixteen year old brother into manhood, or take my wheelchair-bound brother to hockey and baseball games, or walk my sister and I down the aisle on our wedding days, or send my mom flowers on Valentine's Day?

Death - regardless of cause or warning - leaves a sting for those who are left behind. And how well you walk through the valleys of grief often correlates with the quality of care received from acquaintances and friends. But, what exactly do you do if you suddenly find yourself the friend of someone grieving?

It's awkward.
Let's just get that out in the open, shall we? Before I lost my dad, I had no idea how to act around people who were grieving. My heart ached for those going through difficult times, but I didn't know what to do or say. And those awkward feelings can sometimes produce other awkward actions, like saying the wrong things or unintentionally distancing yourself from that friend because you don't feel qualified to help them with what they're going through.  

Heroes in the Valley
I jumped at the chance to write this post. Not because I'm anything special, but because it reminded me of all the special people that walked with us through the dark valleys after my dad's sudden death. I cannot imagine how heavy our burdens would've seemed had friends not stepped into our world and insisted that we distribute the weight of those burdens with them. Most of what I've learned about "being there" for people was learned from their example. And so, I'm sharing a few practical tips, in case there are other well-intentioned friends out there feeling as helpless as I once did (and sometimes still do).

Before you read, let me just acknowledge the obvious: First, these suggestions are not all-inclusive. There are tons of books and helpful websites out there with great suggestions and advice, but I chose to write about three common misconceptions that came to mind. Second, everyone grieves differently. Even among my siblings and me, we dealt with my dad's passing in very different ways. Some people may have guilt. Some may have delayed grief. Some may want to talk. Some may need a few years before they can talk about it. So, practical tips are good, but you know your friends better than I do. Just be there for them. The rest is just details.

Normal Thought: What will I say? Maybe I shouldn't go to them.
Better Thought: I should go to them. Maybe I don't need to say anything.
Tragedies punch us in the stomach. They leave us speechless. Gasping for air sometimes. There's often nothing we can say that will fix the situation. If you try, you might end up saying something weird like, "I can totally relate to what you're going through because my pet died" (an actual, well-meaning comment made to my brother). Why do we feel like we must have something to say to a friend that has just lost someone? Why did I used to think I had to prepare ahead of time if I was going to encounter a grieving friend? Why pretend there are answers and Band-Aids for people that are crushed? Hug them.

Of course, this is not to say that you can't prepare, or pray, or think about how to best bless your friend. But, don't be intimidated if you don't have time to prepare, or if you don't know what to say, or if you don't understand why this happened to them. Because they don't either! Most of the time, the grieving don't need answers, they just want to know they're not alone. That someone else is wondering the same things and grieving right along with them.

When I consider those six days we spent in the ICU waiting room, there are one or two memorable things that I can remember people saying to me; but, the more memorable picture that hangs in my mind is of a room full of friends who hugged us, cried with us, and were willing to sit in silence with us.

Normal Thought: I offered to help, but I guess they just need some space.
Better Thought: Maybe I shouldn't leave the ball in their court.
"Let me know if there's anything we can do to help." It's one of the kindest, most well-intentioned things you can say to someone. And 99% of the time, the speaker really does mean it. In fact, they probably would've moved mountains for you, had you asked them to.

But, the reality is that for various reasons -maybe they're  too tired to think straight, embarrassed to impose upon people, don't want to mention petty things in case they need help later for something bigger, or simply grieving too much to know how to administrate their own care - they may never take you up on that offer.

Now, sometimes people do want to be left alone. They very well might "need some space", but normally that kind of "need some space" means that they'd prefer not to be called by a bunch of acquaintances and answer the same questions of "what happened?" and "how are you doing?", or maybe it means that they'd like some time to process the death of their loved one before talking about it in depth. But it probably doesn't mean that they want to be cut off from all care and acknowledgement of what just happened to them. Something wonderful that people did for us after my dad passed away was to take thoughtful initiative on their own. The specifics of this will depend on the grieving friend's situation and preferences, but for us it meant a neighbor we hardly knew showing up with a home-cooked meal and latticed pie after seeing that an ambulance had come to our house a few days before, guys showing up to shovel our cars out of the snow that winter, friends showing up with instruments to play worship music for us one night, and people who invited my brother out to sports games, and volunteered to serve at my sister's wedding the following year.

The problem with many a kind offer is that they often leave the ball in the court of the person grieving. Without meaning to (I do it too!), we're asking the grieving friend to (1) come up with ideas themselves and (2) get back to us. With all that's going on with them, it would be rare that they would have the time or energy to do this, even if they know they need the help. One approach that I've found to be a blessing is when people offer specifically - What house/yard projects do you have that I could help you with? What babysitting needs to you have this month? Do you have pictures of your loved one that I could put into a slideshow or scrapbook for you? It seems like you could benefit from a distraction - could I take you out to dinner this week? Another approach is to just surprise them. If they're not in the mood to talk, send them a card, or flowers, or tickets to a concert or ball game, or leave a basket of cookies on their doorstep.  

Normal Thought: It would be awkward to talk about their loved one that has passed away.
Better Thought: It's more awkward to pretend their loved one never existed.  
Pssst...here's a secret: most people that have lost a loved one actually want to talk about them. And sometimes the only reason we don't is because we don't want to make you feel awkward. Funny, right? Before my own dad passed away and I had opportunity to talk to lots of people that have also lost loved ones, I never knew this. Again, with the best of intentions, friends often assume that saying the name of the deceased would be cruel or would "re-open the wound". And sometimes it does. Sometimes there are tears mixed in with the memories, and you do need to take into consideration how and when the person died before bringing it up. But, most of us would rather have opportunity to share the occasional tear with someone than to never hear that person's name again.

Otherwise, it's easy to feel like you're the only one that remembers that person. Or you can feel scared that you're forgetting them, and you desperately want others to help you keep those memories alive. But you don't know how to ask for people to help you do that. Sometimes you really want to watch that video and hear them laugh again. You want someone to tell you that they started crying the other day when they thought of your dad. You want a friend of theirs to reminisce about the funny birthday gift they once got from him.

This year marks ten years since my dad passed away, and I have not tired of hearing people's memories of him. Oh how it blesses me when friends are brave enough to bring up his name! I love to hear his name, or to have people tell me that I remind them of him, or when they say, "I was thinking of your dad the other day..." or "...remember that one basketball move he used to do?" So, even if it feels a little awkward, or you only had a passing thought about the person, or you think your one sentence isn't worth sharing, or you've already shared that tidbit before - share it anyways! Even years later, you never know how that memory could brighten their day. And that tear they shed? It might just be a happy one.

Looking back on that time with new perspective now, I'm sure our friends probably struggled through some internal battles of what to say / not say to us. I'm sure there were moments when they wondered if they were doing the right thing, or contemplated calling, or wondered if they should "give us some space", or if they'd done enough. It's hard to be a friend to someone who's grieving. And, although it's good to get advice on how to care for them better, you'll never really know exactly what to do. You'll always be wading through awkward, uncharted territories.

Being on the other side of things changes you. It makes you grateful for the friends that stuck by your side, even through the awkwardness. Even when you didn't know what you needed, or you babbled without making much sense, or you sat in silence after hearing the doctor say your loved one wouldn't recover, or you broke down years later while watching a movie that triggered a memory.

The most heroic friends are often just the ones that are willing to journey into that valley with you. The ones without all the answers, that are just ok with...well...being there. Because more than all the other words or deeds, that is probably what they'll remember the most. 

 photo Dad_Mel_pregnantatgravesitecopy_zps1bc4e186.jpg
The author, while pregnant with her first, at her father's grave site.

More great resources on this subject can be found HERE.


  1. Beautifully written Mel! I love the gracious way you share your wisdom.

  2. Thanks Abby! The same can be said of you, my friend.


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