Archive | March, 2010

How To Support Someone Who’s Grieving: Hand Over Your Memory

19 Mar

Jeff and I. He was 24, I was 18. He was building a desk in my parent's driveway. I was keeping him company. The desk now lives at my house. And man, do I love the fact that he wore suspenders with cut-off jean shorts.

In my former life as a hospice social worker, all things death-and-dying came across my desk on a daily basis.  Articles, books, tips about how to support the dying and bereaved.  Little did I know that less than ten years later I would experience the shattering loss of my best friend of a brother, Jeff, to suicide. A loss that no pamphlet or workshop could have ever prepared me for.   Still, the aftermath of my brother’s death revealed a “tip” that I never read in all my hospice travels.  And it’s one that I righteously think should be screamed from the rooftops when someone you know experiences a soul-rattling death: give the bereaved a memory, any memory you may have of the person they’ve lost.

One of the most painful things about losing Jeff is that I will never again hear him tell me anything about him or his life.  He won’t tell me that he just read a new book about spirituality that he thinks I’d like.    He won’t share with me a childhood memory that we’d never talked about before.  He won’t tell me his newest, inspired idea for how to fix up his travel trailer.   And of course, we’ll never again create a new memory together.

So the only thing I’ve got are my memories which you can be sure I’ve mentally, if not, literally catalogued during the almost three years since he died.  I regularly take them off my mental or actual shelf and spend some time with them.  But there comes that awful, frantic moment when I almost feel like I’ve run out.  This feeling is accentuated by the fact that I have a deplorable memory.  If a genie approached me on Centre Street tomorrow and gave me three wishes, one would most certainly be a written inventory (well since I’m dealing with a genie, I might also ask for a photo and video companion) of every memory and experience I ever shared with Jeff.   It’s maddening to feel like I can only remember about a tenth of the actual moments we shared over my 36 years.  Sure, I supplement the rifling through of memories with feeling Jeff’s essence, his spirit, the qualities that made him such an amazing brother and friend.  But really it’s the memories that I crave.

This is where you come in, whether it’s for me in particular, or more importantly for someone else you know who has experienced a deep loss.   After Jeff died, and continuing to this day, one of the most valuable gifts I can receive in this lifetime is to hear someone else’s specific memories of my brother.  Stories that I’d never heard, stories that would remain entirely unknown to me if people hadn’t revealed them.  This happened a number of times after Jeff died, and again recently, in response to my outreach for the “Out of the Darkness” fundraising walk.  A long lost friend of Jeff’s contacted me a couple weeks ago.  She shared with me that when she was a senior in college, Jeff called her, after being out of touch for years.  In the course of their conversation she confessed to him that she was writing a play but she was convinced that it was naive and flat out bad.  As only Jeff would, he asked her to read it.  The whole thing, start to finish. And so she did, without Jeff interrupting or criticizing, even once.  And as this friend points out, it was a long play and long distance wasn’t cheap back then! She shared this experience with Jeff nearly 20 years ago.   It’s a story that perhaps better captures Jeff’s generosity of heart than any other I’ve heard.  And now it’s my mine too. She gave it to me.   I’ve tenderly tucked it into my cherished inventory, to be pulled out when needed.

Perhaps you know someone only peripherally and you met their lost loved one only once.  And the memory wasn’t even that interesting.  I don’t care.  SHARE IT.  Send them a card, an email, a message in a bottle.  Just share it. Describe what you remember of your encounter with their loved one.  It doesn’t have to be profound like the one that Jeff’s friend recently shared with me.  I’d be touched even if someone sent me a note or an email that said: “I remember meeting your brother one time.  He was wearing a t-shirt with a house on it.  His smile struck me as really gentle.”  That’s all you have to do.  And it doesn’t matter how long after the death.  In fact, the more time that passes, the fuzzier my memories get, and the more I long to replenish my memory inventory.   A part of you will probably try to stop you from handing over your memories, declaring “this is weird, I don’t even know either of these people well.” Take the risk; be willing to break the rules of bereavement etiquette.  Whatever you do, don’t hog your memories of someone who’s never coming back.  Please, give them away.