Those of you who have kept up in my blog know that my husband George was the joy of my life, the best person I’ve ever known. He was funny and kind and greatly loved. He died on March 2 due to complications of surgery on January 31. All my life, I’ve heard people say, “I don’t know what to say, what to do when someone dies.” Here are my thoughts from what I’ve experienced.
First, what helps: just be there in whatever way you can. You don’t have to say a word other than, “I love you. I loved George.” That’s enough. If you can help in anyway, find out and do it. With George in the hospital so long, I asked church friends to sit with him so I could rest and they took from 10 AM to 1 PM so I didn’t have to worry he was alone.
George’s family was wonderful. His sister, Diane Perrine Coon, was here for fifteen days and stayed with George for hours. She kept me interested in news and politics which we both enjoy. Her daughter Alison was here for four days, then returned for the funeral. She’s a marvel at cleaning and sorting and putting stuff away. That was greatly appreciated. Diane, Alison and I watched endless reruns of The Big Bang Theory which lifted my spirits. Wayne Barnet, George’s best friend from church camp, was here for nearly two weeks. When George could still communicated, he asked Wayne to come. He and LaDonna came. We all traded sitting with George. Wayne took the early shift and other times while Diane sat with him in the late afternoon. I visited a little in the morning, more in the afternoon, and Alison drove me over in the evening. Then George’s brother Bill–who doesn’t like to travel–brought the gift of his presence for the funeral.
What to say in a time like this? Words are not necessary. See what needs to be done and volunteer to do it. Actions tell of your love and concern.
If you can’t do go to the funeral or sit with someone in the hospital, send a card. They mean a great deal. If you can go to the visitation, make an effort. During the 6:00-8:00 visitation at the funeral home, the number of friends–from our church in Austin, from the church George served in Burnet, from my writers’ group–who came filled my heart with appreciation. I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and caring. At nearly eight o’clock, I looked up to see my long-time friend Sharon Hammond enter the funeral home. She’d driven all the way from Houston. I can’t tell you how much that meant. Ellen Watkins, my writer friend from Houston, came for the funeral and returned to spend the weekend with me, Tracy Wolff, another writer friend, helped me sort through George’s clothing on Thursday.
And Facebook and email help. I posted daily on Facebook so people would know what was happening with George and people posted: former students, friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, Even an, “I love you” meant a great deal. Just seeing they’d posted had great meaning.
For me–and I say this only for myself because others might not feel this way–I preferred a card, note on Facebook, or an email to a phone call. My life had narrowed to two things: be with George and go home to relax with the kitties. Talking on the phone exhausted me. An “I’m praying” call was appreciated but I truly couldn’t handle reporting in length on George’s health at that time.
Don’t forget the family. Because I’m not an organized person, I’ve often sent a card weeks or months after a death. Sometimes I even do that on purpose. People tell me those are appreciated. The mother of a high school student who died said she knew I hadn’t forgotten her son and that meant a great deal to her.
What doesn’t help:
Don’t try to explain God’s plan. George and I had a wonderful life together. After nearly 47 years of marriage, I’d like you to celebrate his life and mourn his death, but don’t attempt to explain why this happened. I know that as sick as he was, he’s in a better place. I also know I’d rather have George sitting next to me and watching basketball. To me, that’s the best place.
Many years ago, a friend had both parents died within an hour in the same hospital. A friend of her parents said, “If you had more faith, they wouldn’t have died.” This statement haunted her for years. Another friend lost her infant son to leukemia. Her family told her God was punishing her for conceiving the child out of wedlock. Don’t try to explain. Just love and care and support.
I’ve heard people say to parents when their child died, “God wanted another angel for His garden.” This could only make a parent think God is selfish to have taken their beloved child. Platitudes, no matter how pretty they sound, are often harmful when people are grieving.
On television, someone in a hospital room tells the wife of the dying man, “You have to take care of yourself or you can’t take care of him.” Not comforting. Not helpful. When the person I love more than anyone in the world is dying, I have to be with him as much as possible. If I’m home, I’m thinking of him and want to be with him. Because I’m realistic about my health, I did set up schedules and rested at home–but this is a platitude spoken by people who don’t know what it’s like to watch the light of your life burn lower and lower. You want to–you have to–be there.
Do not lecture on what you think the grieving should do, in your opinion. I was asked, “Are you eating and taking your medication?” That was okay because in the midst of grieving, those can be forgotten. But if you believe I should go to a movie to relieve stress and I say, “No”, don’t push. I’m balancing my life and the few hours I had left with my husband in the best way I can. I don’t need a lecture about my anger or bad feelings or anything else. In the first place, I wasn’t angry or harboring negative feelings. I was in deep denial which protected me. My only feelings were concern for George. Don’t read into the grief of others what you’ve read or heard about suffering. I wanted to shout, “Leave me alone. I’m an adult. I know how I have to handle this.” Unfortunately, I felt the need to be polite and didn’t.
Truly, you do know what to say. You say what you feel not what you think you’re supposed to say. You speak from your heart and soul. You say, “I love you” and act in love.