In my counseling class, there was a woman who ran a widows/widowers support group. She herself had lost her husband several years ago, and had started this group to provide help for others in a similar position.
During a class on grief, she shared this: “For someone that has lost a significant relationship, for every year of that relationship, it takes a corresponding month to fully grieve. So when I lost my husband of 48 years, it took me about 48 months, or 4 years, to fully grieve.”
This isn’t an ironclad rule, of course. One of the main lessons about grief is that it’s unpredictable and nonlinear. Some people’s grieving process is shorter, others are more protracted. Yet it is a reminder that moving through grief takes time. Someone in grief may feel fine after a few months, but then be hit with another wave of loss. Yet that is not evidence of regression, but simply that grief is still taking its time.
A couple weeks ago, I got on the bus to go to school. I saw my friend, and sat down to chat with him. We talked for a bit about school, then I asked how he was doing. He was silent for a moment, then shared that one of his friends had recently passed away. He was clearly processing through the emotions of his friend’s death. As we talked, I asked him a simple question: “What was his name?”
Later, I saw this same friend, and he told me how that simple question really touched him. He said “I’ve told several other people about my friend’s death, and they’ve all been sympathetic, but none has asked me about his name. It really meant a lot to me that you did. It gave me space to remember him.”
I learned to ask this question from my peer counseling class. Grieving people want to be able to remember those they have lost. Yet many times, their friends are uncomfortable talking about death. They may give sympathetic condolences and change the subject. For those who grieve, remembering is part of healing. To remember inside jokes, big dreams for the future, the bar where they would always meet. In particular, when the death was due to illness, to remember what the person was like before sickness, to not allow the lasting memory to be frailty and weakness, but health and vibrancy.
So if you are with someone who is grieving, ask the simple question. “What was their name? Tell me about this person.”
Several years ago, I went through a year of peer counseling (Stephen Ministry, for those who know it.) In one session, I was recalling some past trauma with my counselor. I told him “I just want to get to the point in which all of this is gone, like it never happened.” My peer counselor told me “You know, the truth is that it doesn’t work that way. You can’t make the event go away. All you would be doing is pretending. The trauma happened. But what you can do is get the point at which it no longer has control over you.”
It’s like a physical wound. At first, it’s painful and may even limit what you can do. Over time, the wound heals, but leaves a scar. The scar is a reminder of what happened, but it no longer has power over you.
On that day, I learned to stop asking, hoping, and praying for forgetting, and to start asking, hoping, and praying for healing.
Last September, I got on the bus and saw one of my classmates on board. We have talked a few times and are on friendly terms, although not particularly close. He looked up from his phone as I got on and said hi, and I sat down near him. We were the only ones on the bus. I asked him how his day was. He said it was good, and went back to his phone. It looked like he was texting someone.
The bus kept on. My classmate continued his texting conversation, while I sat in silence. I will confess that I felt a bit bothered by the exchange. It seemed rude to focus on his phone rather than engage in conversation.
Then I asked myself, “Why should this bother me? Perhaps he is engaged in a really important conversation and can’t be distracted. Maybe he’s had a tough day and wants to talk it over with his friend. Maybe he has other reasons. Even though I don’t do much texting, maybe he has a different relationship with his phone. I’m pretty sure that he isn’t intentionally snubbing me. And if he is, why should that affect me? What if he were playing a game instead? The fact that he is choosing to engage with some mindless distraction instead of enjoying the pleasure of my company shouldn’t affect me. That’s his loss.”
The bus arrived at my stop. I got up and said bye to my classmate as I walked to the bus door. I don’t know if he responded. I got off and walked home.