Exactly one month and one day ago, I saw my dad alive for the final time. I didn’t know then that it would be the final time. That he would take his last breath two days later. He was in good spirits as usual, despite looking frail and being very groggy. The next time I saw him, he was lying peacefully with a beautiful smile on his face, eyes closed in eternal bliss.
In life I learnt a lot from him. The man was larger than life after all. I was shocked to find that I am learning even more from him in death. The outpouring of love, support and heart wrenching tributes shared from all the people whose lives he touched have been nothing short of amazing. As a family, we have come to learn of things he was doing for others, of which we had absolutely no clue.
I wasn’t particularly close to my dad, no one really was. He wasn’t exactly the touchy feely type of dad, didn’t openly express his feelings – you know, typical African dad. I only told him I loved him once in my entire life – the day he was admitted in the hospital. And I whispered it in his ear while he was practically comatose.
What I learnt from him early in life is that you don’t need to see someone every day, or even appear close to them, to love them. For him, love was expressed through ordinary acts – taking care of us, offering his opinion (or judgement) on our lives decisions…you know….regular stuff. He never bothered to call any of his children just to say hallo; if my dad called you, it was an emergency. The same applied for his friends and even his wife.
The one thing he couldn’t stand more than anything was hypocrites or anyone who was not authentic. He was very clear how he felt about such people and they often felt the brunt of his cold dismissal. One of his final wishes, which we honored, was not to have his casket at the requiem mass. It always irritated him that during memorial services, people would give tributes seemingly “talking to the dead person”. In his own words, why speak to the dead yet they cannot hear you.
I never realized till a couple of years ago that he was referring to hypocrites in life. People who will not be there for you in life, but will show up in death saying all the things that they could never say while you were alive.
The harsh truth is that a good number of our so called friends will show up for you when you no longer need them. Lately, mental health appears to be on a decline with a spike in the number of suicides. The one common thing with each untimely death is numerous regrets from people who “kept meaning to check on the deceased” and are now lamenting their lack of action.
I am no stranger to this kind of behavior. Having gone through numerous ups and downs in life, I am intimately familiar with the fickle nature of human beings.
What I am never quite prepared for however, is how differently people deal with loss. There are people who came through for me and my family, selflessly giving their time and resources without hesitation. People who I may have taken for granted before, but I now treasure and hold dear. There were also those we hadn’t seen in a long time, yet they came through for us.
And then there are those that we were expecting, those we thought could not possibly fail to be with us during such a difficult time. Those are the ones that shocked us the most, the ones that failed to show up or even send a message. Those are the most painful lessons that life can throw at you, because you have to learn them when you are truly vulnerable.
It is during the worst time in your life that you get to see the true colors of everyone. And some of those colors aren’t pretty.
So for those of you who are clueless on how to be there for someone who is grieving, here are a few helpful tips from someone who has encountered loss way too many times.
BE THERE. Yes it’s not easy and you don’t know what to say. There are no words to say at this time that can make the pain go away or the loss easier to bear. So just don’t say anything, but be there. Be present. Trust me, your presence is enough.
Respect the person’s grief process. People grieve in different ways. Don’t be tempted to push the person to grieve in a certain way. And when they do grieve, don’t tell them to stop. Just be there.
It’s ok to ask them what they need, what you can do order, anything to help out. It’s even better to look around and see what needs doing, and do it. Trust me, it’s not rocket science. Those grieving are probably spaced out or even confused. The best thing you can do at this time is ease their burden by reducing the decisions they need to make. Basic things like meals, arrangements for those coming to condole like seats and tents if necessary, ensuring small children are occupied etc. Once you start to look, the list is endless.
Even as you visit, remember that the person you have gone to condole isn’t there to entertain you. If you are prone to boredom and cannot participate in the helpful activities above, then ask someone else to accompany you to keep you company. Remember, it’s not about you at this time.
Avoid saying things like “let me know if/when you need me.” Most people are incapable at this time of reaching out. And yes, they do need you and they may not know how to tell you. Just show up. I personally did not realize how much I needed some of my friends till they showed up.
Don’t underestimate your presence during this time and even after the funeral takes place. This helps with the grieving process and ensures the person doesn’t feel alone. Unless someone explicitly asks you not to come, try and keep checking in.
Just to be clear, death and loss do not understand social media. For some of us sending a message on text or Facebook is enough to appease their conscience. While this is ok when the person has just received the news, you need to follow up with a call or even better a personal visit. And keep trying; don’t be discouraged just because someone doesn’t take your call. Remember, it’s not about you at this time.
If this person means anything to you, take the time to be there for them. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in your own life; if you aren’t going through loss as well then the cardinal rule is that this takes precedence. This is the only time that a person will ever truly need you, so don’t let them down.
Take time to reach out today to those who matter to you. None of us are going to stay around forever.
A special note of appreciation:
Through what has been the toughest time in our lives, the one thing that has truly helped is the support of the people who have hugged us, held us while we cried, fed us, made sure we got some sleep and just made every day that much easier. I cannot even begin to thank each of you here, but I know that I don’t need to. You are angels sent down by our Heavenly Father and our Daddy to make each moment more bearable. We wouldn’t have managed without you and I just want to say a huge Thank You and may you always be abundantly blessed!
Thank you for helping us to smile through our tears.