Monday, April 6, 2015

What I learned when my mom died: Part 2

People, and I think Mormons in particular, respond to the news of death in two primary ways: service, and food.  Not necessarily in that order.  In the days following my mom's death, it became borderline comical how many people said to me and those in my family something along the lines of, "Let me know if there's anything at all I can do."  I almost kept a tally.  That isn't to say I didn't appreciate the sentiment - I very much did - it's just that everyone said it.

There are several articles making the rounds on the internet about what to say and not to say to someone who has lost a loved one.  "Let me know if I can help," is often on the "what not to say" list.  I didn't mind it so much.  It's people's way of processing sensitive, unexpected, devastating information and expressing solidarity with those closest to the center.  However, I do like the idea of rather than saying, "How can I help?" just finding a way to help.  It's true that someone grieving often doesn't know what they need, or have the energy to ask even if they do.  Also, I'm more willing than most to ask for help or call on those willing to do something, but there were plenty of moments when there wasn't anything to help with.  What I needed was my family and time to heal.

If you're thinking, "I'd like to help, but don't know how," let me let you in on a little secret.  The "how" doesn't matter.  Seriously.  Couldn't matter less.  Just do something.  A very dear friend of mine has some experience dealing with death in her family.  She's got it down to a science.  She happens to be single and between jobs, so she became our family's personal assistant for nearly two weeks.  She babysat, made sure we were drinking enough water, provided rides and distractions, kept us well-stocked on coca-cola, reminded us to nap and get priesthood blessings, prepared snack packs for between the funeral and the cemetery, brought french fries to the cemetery, organized boutonniere pinning, gathered whatever we left behind at the church, etc. etc. etc.  If you are able to be that person for someone else, you will be a god-send. If not, you can still help out.  Our situation was a little different because we had to wait a full two weeks before having a funeral because of the repatriation process.  Regardless, here are some other things that people did for me or my family that we found helpful or comforting:

My best friend brought over my favorite kind of chocolate milk.  Later she also made me my favorite comfort food (mac & cheese) for lunch.

My sister-in-law is training for the Boston Marathon and a friend of hers offered to watch her kids while she did the long runs in her training schedule.

My brother was planning on moving to a new apartment and some friends packed his apartment and moved it while we were dealing with viewings and funerals out of town.  That included an old piano that weighs about 1,000 pounds.

A friend of mine who is a very talented designer and florist made our boutonnieres using some of my mom's jewelry.

So many people brought food of one kind or another.  So.  Many.  People.  I'm not necessarily discouraging food.  If you're going to bring food, however, here's a tip - bring something healthy.  Grieving people are going to get plenty of treats.  Also, you cannot go wrong with homemade bread.  Unless those you're taking food to are weird gluten-intolerant people.  Also, most people bring dinner.  Breakfast is nice once in a while.  Lastly, bring food in disposable containers.  Don't make the mourners return your Tupperware.

My dad's neighbor was out buying fertilizer for his lawn and bought extra to do my dad's lawn.

A friend offered to go to a thrift store and buy a bunch of plates for us to go out into the mountains and break.  (We ended up not taking her up on the offer, but I think it was a fantastic offer.)

My family went to lunch at a favorite lunch spot and the owner paid for our meals.

A friend of mine came over just to sit with me.  That same friend took charge of moving my car on street cleaning days while I was out of town, and had my car cleaned while she was at it.

Another friend watched my sister's baby so we could all go out to dinner and a movie.  While watching the baby, she cleaned my sister's house and started some laundry.

Friends and neighbors of my parents opened their homes to our rather large extended family who had to travel for the funeral.

Various professionals - photographers, designers, massage therapists, hair stylists, nail artists, grief counselors, offered their services free of charge.  If you're in a position to offer some sort of professional service, that's a great way to contribute.

Along with standard flowers and cards, some of our favorite things we got were:  Tylenol PM, tissues (especially the kind with lotion), sleepytime tea, coloring books, babysitting services, massages, freezer meals, disposable plates/cups/utensils (especially forks), one-time-use freezer containers, coolers of assorted beverages.  You might also give garbage bags, diapers, airport rides, parking passes, oil changes, buddy passes, pet food if appropriate, and any number of other daily necessities.

As of the publishing date of this post, my mom passed away almost a month ago.  In the days following the return to "normal life" one of the most helpful things has been small check-ins and message of love or humor from friends.  A text, a picture, a phone call etc.  Don't forget about people.  Months later we're still figuring our our new normal and may need a shoulder or a friend to buy us ice cream.

Again, what you give, or how you help does not matter.  Use your imagination.

And a huge, and deeply hear-felt "Thank You!" to anyone who helped or offered to help in any way.

Monday, March 30, 2015

What I learned when my mom died: Part 1

My mom recently passed away in a fairly horrific car accident while traveling in New Zealand with my dad.  It has been an indescribable experience on so many levels and for so many reasons.  It has also been a learning experience.  The Mormon religion has some beliefs and teachings about life, death, and the afterlife that bring a measure of comfort and perspective during times of mourning, but it's still a difficult thing to deal with.  Everyone grieves in their own way, but here are some things I learned and experienced in the days and weeks following my mom's death.

1 - It's okay to feel sad.
And I don't mean sadness tempered by the Sweet Peace of The Gospel and the knowledge of Eternal Families, or sadness lightened by the Tender Mercies of Heaven.  I mean gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, deep-down, ugly cry sadness.  100% okay.  Do family ties last beyond the grave?  I believe they do.  Can the teachings of the gospel of Christ bring a measure of peace?  I believe they can.  Does God provide moments of mercy and comfort at a time like this?  I believe He does.  That doesn't mean you should feel less sad.  Don't let anyone tell you you should.  Death is an inherently sad thing.  In fact, the Earth trembled and the skies turned black when Christ died in the Bible.  If God can feel such visceral sadness, He wouldn't expect any more from you.  It's also okay to feel hurt, confused, angry, relieved etc. etc. etc.  You can't control what you feel.  Lean into it, and work through it.

2 - Let people help.
In this situation I found myself at the epicenter of a tragedy.  Countless people offered to help in any way they could.  Our natural reaction as humans, I think, and especially as Mormons is to say, "Oh, no, don't worry about me.  I don't want to put you out."  Just know that people offering to help is their way of processing grief and offering solidarity with you.  Let people feed you, tend your kids, do your laundry, take you to a movie, fill your gas tank, weed your garden, vacuum your house, help you move, do your dishes, iron your clothes, etc. etc. etc.  You're not putting them out.  They want to help.  They need to help.  And it's even okay to expect help, just be sure that you're gracious about it.  Expecting help is different than being entitled to help.

2b - Have distractions handy.
This is where you call on those people that are offering help (and as a sort of 2c, don't be afraid to ask for help, remember people need it as much as you do).  If you need a few minutes to get out of your head, send out the call.  People will provide movies, drives, coloring books, shopping excursions, walks, playdough, sudoku, puppies, lunch, theater tickets, sports tickets, books, magazines, toddlers, etc.

3 - You have every right to say no.
If you don't want to talk, or eat, or be around people, or participate in the funeral, or see them shut the casket, or give someone a hug, or go to bed, or ride with your crazy aunt Florence to the cemetery, or send out thank you cards, you don't have to.  Don't let anyone force you to do anything you don't want to.  You're going to process grief in your own way, and only you know how to do that best.

4 - You're going to cry.
A lot.  You already know this, but what you may not know is when or why you'll cry.  You may cry when you find out, and when you're initially letting those close to you know, and when you hug your loved ones.  In fact, you'll probably cry for a good portion of Day 1. As time passes you'll probably cry less.  The initial shock will wear off and acceptance will set in.  But then you'll smell someone else wearing your moms perfume, or you'll catch someone out of the corner of your eye that looks like your mom, or a friend - or even a stranger - will unexpectedly do something very thoughtful.  And. You.  Will.  Lose it.   Let it happen.  It's part of the healing process.

5 - You need to laugh.
Laughter is healing.  It lightens the mood and helps you to cope.  Whether that's joking about being orphans like the family who's parents were traveling with my parents and both also died in the crash, or simply enjoying a funny movie, or sharing amusing memories.  Find plenty of time to experience laughter and joy.

6 - Nature is healing.
Anecdotal and empirical evidence back this up.  Get outside.  Walk in a park, hike in the mountains, swim in the ocean, meditate under a tree, take a nap on the back lawn.  Find ways to connect with Mother Earth.  She'll take care of you.

7 - Day 2 is worse than Day 1.
Just a heads up.

8 - Grief is exhausting.
No one tells you this.  Everyone knows you're hurting and that this situation sucks.  No one tells you that you'll feel totally wiped out because you're crying all of the time, and your brain and heart have been on overdrive processing all of the information that comes with a death, and you're dealing with everyone expressing condolences and love, and you're trying to make sure everyone else in your family isn't completely falling apart.  It's okay to pop a couple of Tylenol PM and pass out.

Your situation is going to be different than mine was, but I think most of these things are fairly universal.  Hopefully they'll help you, or help someone else help you get through the first few days.  You're gonna be okay.  Have a good cry, then have a cookie, then give me a call and we'll cry and have a cookie together.