A week ago last Saturday, I witnessed a terrible motorcycle accident in the neighborhood. I was the first person to check on the victim, and was not prepared for what I would find. The young rider had died instantly, but the scene was like something out of a war zone. When the police arrived, even veteran offices were shocked.
I was not able to recognize the young man, and spent the evening in sorrow and shock for him and for his family, whoever they were. It would all be magnified the next morning, when I found out his identity. He was our neighbor, the 21-year-old son of the family just a few doors down from us.
As I went through last week, going to the wake and the candlelight vigil and the funeral, crying with neighbors on the sidewalks, at the mailbox, and sometimes right in the middle of the street, I tried to find some way to use this experience to help others. As a writer, I decided I would come up with a list of tips to help those who grieve. Though my own sorrow is minuscule in comparison to what this wonderful young man's family is suffering, I thought perhaps I could glean something from it that would give others insight into the experience of someone who has experienced a sudden and shocking loss. Also, since I was struggling to know how to offer comfort to the family of our young neighbor, I could use these lessons to better serve them during this difficult time. The post would be titled something like X Gentle Ways to Help Those Who Grieve, and it would be a wealth of practical advice that for what to do, and what not to do, to most effectively help someone in the depths of loss.
I would quickly find that it's not that simple.
The first tip was going to be, Don't make them make decisions; decide what would be helpful and just do it. I jotted that one down when I found myself utterly overwhelmed by offers to help. I was touched to the point of tears by the warmth of my friends, family, and neighbors who were kind enough to reach out to me, in addition to offering to help the victim's family. But I often completely froze up when faced with a choice. Did I want people to bring meals? Watch the kids? Help with laundry? I just didn't know, and would get extremely stressed out trying to make those decisions.
But then a sweet friend picked me up for a surprise afternoon out, making the decision for me that we should have a girls' day to get together. It's something I normally would have enjoyed, but I simply couldn't handle it in my condition, and my poor friend almost had to deal with a full-on panic attack during what should have been a nice day. So I scratched Don't make them make decisions, and changed it to Let them make decisions about how they want to be helped. Not ten minutes later, I found myself frozen with new choices about what assistance I might need, and I changed it back to Don't make them make decisions.
Almost everything I wrote down, I would eventually contradict. Let them be alone was quickly replaced by Don't let them be alone. Don't ask them how they're doing was edited through tears to Ask them how they're doing, then back to the original. Don't pressure them to talk about it was erased; so was Encourage them to talk about it and Ask if they want to talk about it.
As I have experienced from being in both roles, the person who grieves feels broken and raw, but the person who hopes to comfort those in grief carries her own cross too, the heartache of feeling powerless to take away the suffering of those she cares about. Everyone touched by a tragedy is transformed in some way, and the process of transformation is sometimes painful. A terrible loss, especially one that was unforeseen, thrusts those who mourn and the community around them into a crucible of the human experience in which the facades that shield us are burned away, and our innermost selves are left vulnerable and exposed. And when we're all walking around in that state, bumping into each other as we bumble around, trying to heal, trying to help, trying just to get through the rest of the day, it's going to be messy.
And so I never could come up with a good list of tips. What helps one person may not be what helps another; what helped someone this morning may not be what helps him this afternoon. The only two pieces of advice that I never scratched out were Pray and Hope. If you'd like to comfort someone who is mourning, pray for him, for the soul of his lost loved-one, and for guidance for yourself that you might know how best to serve him. And hope. Hope not only that everyone involved will experience healing and renewed faith, but that we will all one day come together again, in the place where there is no grief.