Friday, 10 January 2014

A Story About Friendship and Some Advice About Grief

photo by Debra Hughes

Sometimes life can take us in the most unexpected directions.

When I married, we moved to a new town and I went in search of work.  I applied for a job advertised in our new town's paper, providing home care for a 13-month-old girl with spina bifuda .

I didn't give much thought to her disability at the time: Kids are kids to me and I enjoy them all.  I needed work and taking care of a little girl in her home five days a week seemed well suited to both my temperament and my budget.

Cheri was a sweet child: tiny, bright eyed, already talking, and very curious about the world around her. She readily accepted me into her world and embraced me with an unqualified love I couldn't help but return. Very quickly, she became a child of my heart; as dear to me as my own family.

Cheri grew, as children do, and went off to school.  I took full time work elsewhere, but still my bond with Cheri and her parents continued. I provided respite care for Cheri, and Cheri's mother Anna became one of my closest friends.  We were often in and out of each other's houses.

We shared happy times and challenging ones:  Cheri's health problems were many and complicated.  When Cheri was well, we enjoyed adventures, and quiet times too. When she was ill, we supported one another and helped to provide the care and reassurance she required.

So it was that a chance reply to a classified ad grew into a great gift of love.  I am more grateful for it than I can begin to tell you here.

At the end of November a couple of years ago, when she was 28 years old, Cheri's poor body could no longer withstand the many demands her health problems had made upon it.  She was admitted to hospital one last time and, after some days, a decision was made to take her off life support.  I was honoured to be with her when she slipped away.  

I can only imagine the magnitude of pain one suffers upon losing a child.  Anna was a brave woman, and quite stoic, but it overwhelmed her.  She worked very hard to find away to carry on after her loss but confessed to me that it felt like a part of her was missing.  For 28 years she'd centered her life around her daughter, and now that center was gone.

Almost exactly a year after Cheri died, Anna became very ill.  She was admitted to hospital, diagnosed with anemia and diabetes, given meds and - once she was strong enough to manage alone - sent home.  She didn't respond as expected to the medications and began to experience terrible pain in her legs and back. Further tests revealed that cancer had spread so pervasively throughout her body that it was not possible to treat it, or even to determine where it had begun.

Four months later my dear friend was gone.

I am struggling with the loss of these two women, both so dear to me.  Even though it's been more than two years since Cheri's death, and almost a year since Anna's passing, grief still ambushes me at the most unexpected times.  

They are so often on my mind.  I'll see an eagle fly by and think "Oh, Cheri would so love to take a picture of that," or be walking the trail beside the river and think "Anna would enjoy the sight of the mist rising up the canyon."  I'll make a recipe that Anna shared with me and feel her presence in the kitchen beside me.

I'm sad.  

I miss them.  

I'm sharing the story of my friends because I think that we, as a society, are very bad at grieving.  

Grief embarrasses us.  

We avert our eyes from it.  

We try to jolly people out of it.  

We encourage those who are grieving to refrain from showing strong emotion.

We need to do better.  Here are some things that you can do to help friends and loved ones who are grieving:

Reminisce.  Share stories both happy and sad about the person you're missing.  It'll make you feel better and it'll help others too.

Mention the person who's gone by name.  It may make people sad. It may make them cry.  That's okay.  It's part of the process of working through loss. 

Be a patient listener.  It doesn't matter if you've heard a reminiscence a thousand times before.  The teller is finding comfort in sharing it again.  In listening, you're giving them the gift of compassion and an acknowledgement that the person remembered is still important to you too.

Understand that everyone grieves differently.  Don't tell people how they should be acting.  Don't treat their actions as inappropriate. Don't assume that they need a hug, or that they want to be left alone.  Listen to what they're saying and pay attention to their particular needs.

Understand that grieving doesn't have a time table. Grief peaks at different times for different people.  For some, it's immediate and intense.  For others, it's delayed.  In either case, grief can revisit people for a long time after a loss. Don't treat it as being less because a person's loss is growing more distant.  It isn't less to them.

Be there for the long haul.  It's comforting for people to know three months, six months, a year, or many years down the road that you still remember and recognize their loss.

Grief is hard, both for the person grieving and for those around them.  It's painful to watch someone struggling with loss, but a little empathy and a mindful response can go a long way toward providing comfort.