I never ask anyone to adjust the thermostat in a car or at home unless I’m suffocating or shivering.
It’s a point of personal pride that I can tolerate a wider range of temperatures than most people.
And for awhile, I carried that same prideful disdain for “weaker folks” into my grief journey.
I was determined to endure whatever blows might come my way via comments, behavior, subtle and not-so-subtle attempts by others to circumscribe, dictate or otherwise influence my loss experience. I didn’t want to abandon pride in my own strength by admitting I wasn’t as strong as I wished I could be.
Then one day I realized that being honest was not the same as being rude. Telling the truth was not the same as acting selfishly.
Nothing is gained by remaining silent in the face of ignorance or arrogance or just plain inattention. The person who crosses a boundary of compassion or grace or love or empathy and goes unchallenged is set free to do it again-to me or someone else.
So I started telling people the truth:
“I’m sorry, I just can’t talk about this right now.”
“I appreciate your need to fill this vacancy but I’m not emotionally prepared to take on any new responsibilities.”
“Today is a hard grief day, can we discuss this later?”
“I don’t think I will be able to come, it’s too hard to be around a crowd these days.”
“I know you mean well, but your comments hurt my heart. You can’t understand precisely what I’m going through and I know that. I would appreciate it if you respected that fact and didn’t try to ‘help’ me by sending articles, etc.”
“I’m tired today. I’m taking a break from everyone but family.”
“The holidays are hard on my heart. I’m thankful you find joy in them. I won’t be attending the party (family gathering, etc.) this year. Maybe next year will be easier.”
“I’m getting anxious, I need to go.”
Except for a lone individual, every time I chose honesty, it was not only accepted, it was applauded.
People got it! Not that they truly understood in the deepest sense what I was going through, but they respected that I was, in fact, GOING THROUGH something hard, heartbreaking and life changing.
Like I’ve said before, my emotions will leak out somewhere. I can’t keep them bottled inside forever.
When I choose to be honest AT THE TIME it’s so much better.
When I let folks know that what they say, do, expect from and thrust upon me is unhelpful or overwhelming or even painful, they usually respond with gratitude. They almost always accept my boundaries.
Those of us walking the Valley often say that those who aren’t just can’t understand. They don’t know what they don’t know.
But they can be educated about some of what we know.
They can learn that some things hurt and most of them would be glad to know it because they don’t wish more pain on our already broken hearts.
It’s OK to ask someone to make adjustments to make the journey less difficult.
I think it’s almost always offensive when someone says, “I know just how you feel” to a grieving heart.
Even two biological parents of the same child have a slightly different relationship with him or her because their experience is filtered through the lens of distinct personalities, shared adventures, struggles, joys and secrets.
We are a family of six-four kids and two parents.
Each one of us has experienced Dominic’s death differently because he was uniquely woven into the fabric of our separate stories as well as our corporate story.
Parts of me reflected back from him are gone forever. The unique give and take we shared is my loss alone.
Sibling memories, inside jokes, sneaky “don’t tell mom” pranks and antics belong to his sister and brothers and are part of their loss I can neither understand nor access.
Yes, we share corporately the loss of a son and brother, but none of us can really say, “I know just how you feel”.
Because we don’t.
And that’s one of the things that makes grief a very lonely journey.
All these feelings wrapped inside of experiences bound up in memories stored in two hearts. Only now one of them is inaccessible and the other is trying to find a way to carry both halves of the relationship.
Part of the work grief requires is gathering up the fragments of memory and tucking them safely away.
It will be different for each heart.
Even hearts that mourn the loss of the same person.
I’ve written before about how I choose to leave some things just as Dominic left them-even over five years later.
It’s my way of maintaining physical space in our home that represents the space in my heart where only he can fit.
It’s also more than that.
As time progresses, nearly every other tangible evidence that Dominic existed is being worn away.
Sure there are photographs-but even they are growing old while he is not. No fresh adventures captured on phone or film. No new Facebook or Twitter posts. No new anything.
And as he becomes less relevant to other people’s lives, the gap between my experience and their’s grows ever larger.
Because he is just as relevant to my life as he ever was.
I have four children. Dominic is third of four, second of three boys. He is Uncle Dominic to my new grandson although Ryker won’t meet him in this life. He is my encouragement to keep doing hard things because he never allowed difficulty or pain to stop him from doing them.
His absence looms large. Every. single. day.
And sometimes, when it seems the world has forgotten him, when all the bits and pieces of who he was in life and how he touched others are floating away in the ocean of human activity, it looms larger.
So on those days I’m a little weepy.
On those days I may talk of him more.
On those days I might have to pull out the old photos and post them online.
I have so much more empathy for older folks since Dominic ran ahead to Heaven.
I’ve always tried to be a patient listener when hearing that same story over and over and over but have to admit that sometimes I’d drift off or internally mock an elder because I was tired of hearing it.
Because I understand now that it’s in the telling that one both commemorates and honors people as well as the past.
Stories are how we weave facts into narrative and give them meaning. It’s why so many of us love historical fiction or period dramas that not only reference actual people and events but also peek at emotions, motivation and draw conclusions.
I could hand you my daily calendar and you’d understand the outline of where I was and what I did.
But you wouldn’t know what I thought or felt that day unless I filled it in.
When Dominic ran ahead to Heaven, I was forced at first to deliver the most basic message to others who needed to know. I repeated it over and over, “I have to tell you something awful. Dominic is dead.”
I didn’t really know much more than that.
Details were added by friends and first responders in the days to come.
The story broadened to include how we reassembled our family from across the country, who showed up to help us through the first hours, where we chose to bury him, what the funeral service looked like and on and on and on.
For months afterward I found myself compelled to repeat the story of those days.
Compelled to rewind and play again the details, each time teasing out additional insights, questions and feelings.
It was an important part of unspooling and exploring what, exactly, it meant to live in a world that no longer included one of my children.
I know sometimes folks get tired of me telling the story. For them, it is a reminder of some awful event that is tucked neatly in the past. A date on a calendar somewhere that might occasionally tickle the back of their brain and evoke a, “that’s so sad” response but not something they live with every. single. day.
But for me, Dominic’s death is an ongoing experience.
Every day I have to fit his absence into my world. I have to find a way to live around the giant void where heSHOULDbe butISN’T.
So the story grows.
It’s not only what happened on the day he left, it’s what has happened since and is still happening now.
When you make space for me to tell, you make space for me to feel.