When Sophie Caldecott's father passed away after a long struggle with cancer, she found herself utterly unprepared for the experience despite knowing it was coming for quite some time. And while everyone handles grief differently, she's learned a few surprising things about the mourning process and how to live with the loss of a loved one. We asked her to take a few moments to communicate these sentiments that will help us all provide better support to our friends who might be living with their own grief. Read her response below:
‘How are you?’ is the hardest question.
In 'A Grief Observed', C. S. Lewis describes wondering 'how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty.' You are constantly aware of the loss, like a child running their tongue over and over the space where a tooth used to be, or that shock of lightness you feel in the shower when you’re washing your hair after a radical haircut. That’s a hard experience to put into words, especially in a quick or passing conversation in a public place.
And yet, everyone has the same question: ‘How are you?’ It’s the question I used to ask people myself when our situations were reversed. It may be an awkward one to answer, but I try to focus on the fact that the person asking is just trying to show that they care about me. I generally keep my answer short, simple, and as honest as possible, and then try to move the conversation on to other things.
You are not the only one who feels powerless.
It is so hard to just be there for someone without offering words of advice or comfort that may well end up hurting more than helping. It’s excruciatingly difficult to feel totally powerless, and the temptation to say something to ‘make it better’ can be so strong. Despite that, we need to learn to be the friend that Henry Nouwen describes when he writes about the value of someone ‘who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion... who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness’.
When someone shares an unhelpful platitude, I try to remember how hard it is to feel powerless to help someone, and to remember all the times that I myself gave well-meant but unhelpful advice in similar situations.
Grief is full of strange contradictions.
How is it possible to feel both cripplingly antisocial and yet desperately lonely at the same time? To be scared of forgetting, and yet to wish that you could? ‘I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they'll “say something about it” or not,’ C. S. Lewis wrote. ‘I hate if they do, and if they don’t.’
Despite finding it hard to think about anything else, it is surprisingly difficult to hear everyone talk about their own memories of my father. In the first shock of losing someone, your connection with your deceased loved one can feel suddenly very fragile, no matter how close you were to them in life, and being inundated with everyone else’s experiences and recollections can feel like yours are being crowded out.
If it feels like this is happening, I try to turn it back into one of my own by thinking ‘Where was I when this was happening?’, or ‘What experience of my father does that remind me of?’ This helps strengthen rather than destroy my sense of who my father was and how we related to each other before he became ill.
It gets a lot harder after the funeral.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the atmosphere in the days leading up to a funeral can be surprisingly festive, with visitors coming and going, flowers and cards flooding in, and friends traveling from afar to be with you to celebrate the life of your loved one. Because of this, it is the period after the funeral that is really bleak, as everyone leaves, the numbness starts to fade, and the real journey with the pain of loss begins. Just as people expect you to begin to return to normal, you have to come to terms with the fact that there is no normal anymore.
I have always been a good communicator, in touch with my feelings, and incredibly at ease confiding in friends about how I feel. Since real tragedy struck, however, I’ve found it difficult to be emotionally honest, and this discovery about myself has completely taken me by surprise. When you feel like your grief will never end, it can be hard to reach out; you feel like your sorrow will be too heavy a burden for anyone else to help you to carry, or as if there is a time-limit on how long you can impose your sadness on those closest to you.
I am learning, slowly but surely, to open up and ask for help when I am having a particularly rough day. I have resolved to try and be as kind to myself as I would be to a friend who needs my help. It’s not easy, but then again ‘Sorrow,’ as Lewis wrote, ‘turns out not to be a state, but a process’, and it’s a process that we cannot rush our way through.
Thank you for sharing these heartfelt thoughts, Sophie. We wish you peace and understanding as you navigate this new normal for you and your family.
p.s.The one sentence you should say to a grieving friend.