Today marks the one year anniversary of the death of my partner and best friend, Wil Curry.
His death was sudden and unexpected. He was biking late at night to my apartment, and was hit by a car while crossing an intersection. I realized he was over an hour late, and my room mate informed me she had driven by a bad accident near his route. I called up his room mates and we had to go search for his body.
It really fucking sucked.
In the past 14 months, I have lost 5 people. My grandfather was first, followed by Wil, a close coworker named John, and two aunts. (And a pet snake, because at this point, why the hell not?) The grief induced by Wil’s death was a completely novel experience for me. And because I am a complete science dork, I began recording my observations of grief. In journals, notebooks, margins of textbooks, scraps of paper. Whenever a thought struck me, I had to write it down. As time progressed, I watched several of my friends go through losing close friends and family members, and continued taking notes.
So now, one year later, I give you a somewhat refined version of my notes on grief. This didn’t turn out as polished and cohesive as I wanted it to be, but it’s good enough for now.
1) There Are Only Two Appropriate Things To Say To A Grieving Person
(And an infinite amount of inappropriate things)
I cannot emphasize this enough.
People usually have no idea what to say to a grieving person, which often results in them saying a lot of inappropriate things. Before this experience, I was the same way. I had no idea what to say to a grieving person, because I had no idea what they were going through. After Wil’s death, I was on the other side of the scenario, and was truely appalled at how many inappropriate comments I received. Despite the fact they were all said with good intentions, they were still incredibly hurtful.
The absolute worse one was when a lady told me:
“He died because heaven needed more angels.”
I nearly punched her.
That’s something you say to a 5 year old after they accidentally stepped on their pet hamster, not a grown woman whose lost her partner. Knowing she meant well, I held my temper, immediately left, and screamed in my car the entire drive home.
There are only 2 appropriate things you can say to a grieving person:
1. I’m so sorry for your loss.
2. Let me know if there is anything I can do.
If you go any further, you run the risk of offending someone.
Say those two lines, hug them, and shut up.
2) Every Loss Is Different
So many people come up to me and say, “Oh, I know exactly what you’re going through. I lost my grandpa/uncle/aunt/distant cousin last year.”
I had lost my grandfather 3 months before I lost Wil. Losing a grandfather is completely different than losing a partner. Losing a partner is completely different than losing a child. Losing a child is completely different than losing a friend. Losing a friend is completely different than losing a parent.
Losing someone suddenly and unexpectedly is completely different than watching them struggle through a long and painful disease.
Every loss is different, and it is not fair to compare the two.
You simply can’t.
And for the love of god, don’t even try. If one of my friends lost their kid, I would never compare it Wil’s death, especially to their face. I wouldn’t even be able to fathom such a loss. Hell, even if my absolute closest friend lost her partner, I wouldn’t even try to compare it to Wil’s death, because every loss is different. I understand a lot of people say things like this because they’re trying to reach out and form a connection. And in a rational world, this would make sense. But grief isn’t rational.
And when grieving people are still in shock from losing someone, they honestly don’t give a damn about who you lost. They’re still in shock about their loss, and have yet to process it.
3) Everyone Grieves Differently. Don’t Judge.
Just like every loss is different, everyone has their own way of handling grief. Don’t judge. We often see in movies how some grieving character will isolate themselves from everyone else. Some people do this. But I was surprised to discover that I needed to be around people. I saw this over and over in people who lost someone close. I’m a fairly social person, but I do highly value my alone time. But it was completely different when I was grieving. It wasn’t that I wanted to be with people. I needed to be with people. I couldn’t handle being alone, not even for an hour, and actively sought out people to hang out with.
Grief also made me very, very reserved. I’m usually a very open and happy person, full of hugs and sarcasm. But I also hate crying in front of people, and as a result avoided all physical contact, like hugs, in order to keep from crying. As a result, I came across as very cold to a lot of people who didn’t know me. Some thought that my way of grieving was odd, or that I didn’t care about Wil all that much.
And in turn, I was confused as to why so many people posted on his facebook wall, telling him how much they missed him.
It’s simply not how I grieve, because I don’t see the point in talking to dead people as if they’re still alive. But it’s how others grieve, and to each their own. I don’t think less of them if that is how they have to express their grief.
Because when it comes to grief, everyone has their own way. Don’t judge someone simply because their way is different.
4) Keep Your Beliefs To Yourself
I’m not a particularly religious person. I’m joke that I’m a part-time Buddhist, somewhat like those Christians only go to church on Christmas and Easter. My spiritual beliefs are deeply private and I rarely talk about them, because they instruct me how to live my life, not how to run other people’s lives. At one point or another, all religions bring up the topic of death, which makes death painfully prone to awkward situations. Again, this goes back to rule #1: Unless you know, without any shadow of a doubt, 100%, that the person is of a praying faith, don’t say “I’m praying for you, You’re in my thoughts and prayers, The Lord works in mysterious ways, etc.
In fact, even if you know they’re religious, don’t even say it. Death can have a huge impact on a person’s spiritual beliefs. It may drive them to seek solace in their faith, or it may cause them to question it. Either way, it’s none of your business.
I repeat: Let them know you are sorry for their loss, and let them know you are there for them if they need it. This is all you need to say.
After a recent memorial service for a friend’s father, she and I got on the topic of of inappropriate things people say to those in grief. After he died, someone visited her family and walked into the back yard (which her father lovingly tended to for decades) and declared that she felt his presence there.
This is a huge fucking no-no.
Don’t do this.
On the other end of the spectrum, if the person grieving talks about how they feel the deceased’s spirit in some way, and you don’t particularly believe in spirits, keep your mouth shut. Smile, nod, hug them if you want. Grief is no time for a theological debate. If the funeral is in a church or religious institution that teaches things that offend you or conflict with your own beliefs, get over it. Set aside your own beliefs and go to the funeral. Which brings us to our next rule:
5) Go To The Funeral/Memorial Service/Celebration of Life/Whatever
Seriously. Just go. Even if you didn’t know the deceased.
You see, funerals (and memorial services, wakes, celebrations of life, etc) aren’t actually for the deceased at all. They exist for the living. They are a way for people to come together, express their grief, and find solace in each other. And when a friend of yours is grieving, they need support. I hardly knew anyone at Wil’s funeral. There were a few people I knew through him, and a few of my family members, with whom I am not particularly close. None of my closest friends attended. Words cannot describe how devastating that was, because that was when I needed my friends the most.
Ever since, I’ve made it a point to attend funerals, even if I didn’t know the deceased. I’m not there to remember the deceased. I’m there to support my grieving friend. Always go, no matter what.
I guarantee they will appreciate it, because:
6) Grieving People Are Vulnerable.
A few weeks after Wil died, I went to a friend’s house for a movie night. We were watching Doctor Who (because it’s awesome) and he insisted that we watch an episode titled “Father’s Day,” where one of the characters goes back in time and witnesses her father being hit and killed by a car (repeatedly). It was a very well-written and emotionally powerful episode. However, since weeks earlier Wil had been hit and killed by a car, it was also a really shitty episode for me to watch, and I ran out of the house in tears. Grieving people are emotionally and mentally vulnerable. And while that incident was just due to sheer thoughtlessness, there are plenty of bastards out there who will jump at the chance to take advantage of the grief-stricken.
Tim Minchin eloquently illumintated the issue: “By the way, why do we think it’s okay for people to pretend they can talk to the dead? Isn’t that totally fucked in the head? Lying to some poor woman whose child has died and telling her you’re in touch with the other side; I think that’s fundamentally sick.”
I noticed this in numerous ways, the worse of which was when I passed out on a couch and was sexually assaulted. Wil’s death was just as I was prepping to take my finals and start my clinical rotations. I threw myself into school, and within a month was exhausted in every way. Emotionally, mentally, physically. Adamantly against driving while tired, I crashed on a couch of a couple I used to live with, where I was later sexually assaulted by a mutual friend. It permanently destroy one friendship, and damaged several others.
And that was rock bottom. My entire world had been shattered with Wil’s death, immense grief, PTSD, the stress of finishing my finals, preparing for my clinicals, prepping for certification, and betrayal. As the dynamic of so many friendships changed, I gained new perspective on friendship, begrudgingly admitting to myself that yes, sometimes people are jerks who will try to take advantage of your vulnerable state. But for every jerk I came across, there were dozens and dozens of good and kind people in my life. It’s hard to be cynical when faced with those numbers.
7) Don’t Fight The Grieving Process
I mentioned earlier how I would refuse hugs from people because I hated crying in front of people. You get lysozyme and IgA all over your face and it’s super gross. A stubborn part of me refused to do so because I believed that I had to be strong. And while I am by nature the kind of person who likes to get things done first and then emotionally process them later, it wasn’t until 11 months later did I realize I wasn’t being strong at all. All I was doing was trying to avoid my grief, and in the end such action only prolonged it.
I was also surprised to discover that many people think the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – happens in that order, one at a time. It doesn’t. Those steps can occur in any order, simultaneously, or a person may not even experience one of them.
I also learned that grief is so emotionally draining that you have to take breaks. A few days after the death of her mother, my professor and her sister went to an amusement park, just because they needed the break and distraction. It’s healthy to take a break and seek distraction. Just remember that grief is something that eventually you’ll have to work through and process. Grief will never fully go away; It’s something that you always live with. But over time, it fades and becomes bearable. But whether you like it or not, it is something you eventually have to process and work through.