Thursday, March 4, 2010

Remembering the Dead

This is about widowhood. I think it will be enough of a 'how to prepare' and 'how to act' so as not to be a drag to read.

what you need to know first
At many great passages of life, the emotional, the financial, and the spiritual come together. People behave badly. The ceremony usually intensifies this and then wears it out. Everybody accepts afterward.

But death unleashes the primitive in the living. Normally unselfish people become selfish. They want more life. That translates into more sex, more food, more money, more wondering about what they would do if they were the widow or if they were the deceased.

When they wonder, they say things they ought not. They may also try to steal the pearls, the silverware, find out about the will, and hope they get enough from it to buy a new car. It does not necessarily indicate how much they loved whoever died. It's too complicated to be a measure of that.

This is not about love, it is about life versus death. Changes in fortune.
When it is about love, it is trying to get the last thing from the person they lost. They are filling an absence.
When it is about angry love, it is also trying to resolve the last resentments, unsaid conversations, old competitions, and unresolved guilt.

No closure is immediate. Therefore, people are not in their senses after a death.

the role of the widow or widower
Generally, I have noticed that the widowed person's first duty is to maintain the reputation of their deceased spouse--the funeral honors, the hospitality, for instance. Another example of this is not saying when they have terrible difficulty. To a widow, it might mean admitting that their spouse didn't prepare for them properly, or that the children didn't turn out right. They will continue to keep up appearances because of this duty.

The second duty is to help everyone else validate their worth to the deceased. Similar to this second duty, the widow is also asked to validate the faith of everyone else. This is all very difficult. You will notice that these duties are undertaken by the most bereaved person in the room.

This is where the impartial advocate comes in to say "It's time to rest" or 'We're not discussing that yet." Usually someone will step up to the plate for this, but it's nice to know in advance who that person will be.

the conversations
Given the many validations that a widowed person must give, you should know that the conventional condolence frequently serves the bereaved the best. By conventional condolences, I mean: "I'm very sorry for your loss." You leave out the example most of the time. You can get to it later, if it means so much to say.

There are other traditional things said that are hurtful; "You're life isn't over. You'll marry again. I don't know what you're going to do without the deceased." This is all best left unsaid.

Then there are the original comments. These rarely work. They turn the deceased into an object of the condoler's fantasy. The widow or widower does not recognize the person thus presented to them "Old J.B. was a heller/J.B. knew the most important thing in life was X" but he or she is forced, in order to meet duty #2, to listen to this skewed perception and either validate or correct it. Likewise, "Old J.B. never darkened the door of any church, but he was a good [religion]" is likewise wearing. The spouse knows the exact beliefs of the deceased the best. But the bereaved spouse is not up to a debate on religion at the moment.

These people often blur the memory of the deceased. 

One original comment that a person can make to a widow or widower is this:
"Tell me something about J.B. When did you meet him/her?"

You can ask for stories over and over, after a day, a week, a year. Most widows and widowers have been lost in emotional blankness and financial duties, learning new ways to live. You can make their loved one live again by listening instead of talking. You can also help them live again too, by validating the bereaved person's life.

I learned this from listening to ladies draw out from a bereaved friend they took to lunch. And from the kindness of strangers. And from personal experience. 

8 comments:

peedee said...

The death of someone is THE most uncomfortable piece of business out there. Nail squarely hit on the head Ann. There is nothing good/right to say I find. The last funeral I went to was one of Laurens best friends from H.S.'s younger brother. 19 years old. WTF do I say to his mother that doesnt sound idiodic?? (I went because she couldnt get leave and she asked me to attend in her stead) I hate death. I dont do death very well.
Thats kind of ironic based on some of our recent conversations dont ya think??

Bob G. said...

Ann:
It doesn't JUST apply to widows or widowers...it can also be found with sons and daughters that have bureid both parents, too.
Trust me.
You never get over the loss...you just learn to live with it and to learn FROM it

(wonder if that makes people like me an ORPHAN?)

Good post.

Ann T. said...

Dear peedee,
I cannot imagine anything to say when put in a position like that. What a terrible experience for the parents and for you.

In thinking about it, I wonder if we feel that words have to fill that new absence. And sensitive people know they won't, and it just makes them flounder worse when they try. I have certainly done my share of floundering.

The best thing to know is that by being there, you acknowledged the deceased's worth. Months later, the parents will say, 'all of X's friends came out. Even Lauren wanted to, so her mom came.' It does matter.

Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
I am sorry about your parents' death. I have not yet had to face that experience. I am sure you still miss them terribly.

I also think you're right, that it's possible to live with loss, but it doesn't go away. How can it, if the love is still there?

Thank you for sharing this,
Ann T.

The Bug said...

I'm not very good in typical social situations anyway, much less with death. I feel like I didn't even handle my own mother's death the way I was expected to (I didn't care about that - I was the daughter so I could grieve in whatever way was best for me).

I'll try to remember that less is more & that I can say the platitude & that's ok. That will ease enough of my awkwardness that perhaps I can actually be of some comfort to someone. Thanks!

Ann T. said...

Dear The Bug,
I am also sad to hear about your mother. I have not been through that, and I can't know how tough that must have been. It sounds like you love her very much.

I do hope this was helpful. The platitudes came into being for a reason. Depth of feeling can still be conveyed with those sentences. What really helps the bereaved is checking back with them later, when they could use the company of one or two, or a nice note or pot of soup.

I also have a feeling you do much better than you think you do.

Sincerely,
Ann T.

the observer said...

Ann T

Wow, what a post!

My father died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2004. When I went east to be with my mother, I just ended up "practicing presence"--just being there for her. It seems as if I have mourned more in bits and pieces then she did.

I'm sure she still misses him at times. They were married 44 years.

The Observer

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
Every grieving person needs that 'practicing presence' or what I would call the advocate. That was a lovely service that you gave your mom.

I'm sure she does miss him very much. I regret that your grief was not attended so fully. Because I'm sure you miss him and need sometimes to talk it over.

Sincerely,
Ann T.