January 29, 2010

Death, Divorce & Disease

I talked to a woman recently that stopped going to her church because after her husband died she felt abandoned. Hardly anyone would talk to her and she felt like she was being avoided.

People don’t know how to act around surviving families after the death of a loved one. Knowing the right thing to say isn’t always easy. There really aren’t any “right” words.

It made me think about other times that make us feel uncomfortable.

Divorce is a tough one because people always feel like they should take sides. Which person am I friends with now? Should I hide the fact that I’m still talking to John when I see Mary? I’ve had a couple of really close friends divorce and this one is tough. I’m still friends with both of them but unfortunately no longer as close to either of them as we once were.

Any kind of drama or loss that goes on is hard to deal with and we want to keep it at a distance as if it might be contagious. If I stay over here I won’t be involved. If I don’t get too close I won’t have to deal with it.

I'm just as guilty of this as anyone else. I look back and friends and family that needed me and I should have been there more. We get busy and overlook people in their greatest time of need.

Certain illnesses make us uncomfortable like cancer and AIDS. It’s much easier to avoid the issue.

But what does that say to the people that are involved? They don’t have a choice but to be in the thick of it.

I thought about the most popular phrase people say, “I’m sorry.” This one works but almost implies we are somehow at fault and apologizing. Then what do you say to that one? “Thank you.” It does have another meaning of, “I feel sorry for you.” This makes more since but no one ever says that because it doesn’t sound too great either even though that’s what we mean when we say, “I’m sorry.”

“You’re in my thoughts and prayers,” is a good one if the person is a Christian but what if they’re an atheist?
If the person is a close friend or relative you can hug them but even then some people don’t like hugs. I know a few. You don’t want to step over a person’s line of comfort even in times of sorrow.

Another popular saying is, “let me know if you need anything.” Most people never actually takes you up on this one even though they do need our help. It can be awkward to call someone and tell them, “I’m too depressed to clean my own house.”

Here are the seven stages of grief. You don’t have to have a death in the family to go through them. The loss of a marriage or our health can also trigger them.

1. Shock and denial
2. Pain and guilt
3. Anger and bargaining
4. Depression, reflection and loneliness
5. The upward turn
6. Reconstruction and working through
7. Acceptance and hope

There is no particular schedule in which people go through these steps. Some hurry through them in a matter of short months while others take years. If the loved one had a terminal illness some of these steps happen before the funeral.

I know a man whose wife was dying of cancer for several months. By the time she passed away he had already gone through most of the stages of grief and a few months later remarried. A lot of people felt he wasn’t very considerate of his wife but he was an older man and not used to taking care of himself. He had eight months to grieve before she died. Did he love his first wife? Of course he did. Did he forget her when he took another spouse? No.

Here’s what we should do:

1. Don’t forget your friendship. Treat them the same way you always have. If you and your spouse did things with them as a couple change it up a bit. Instead of a couples outing make it a one on one outing between the same gender spouse and the bereaved person.

2. If they have children offer to do things with their kids especially if you have any the same age. If you are taking your kids to the park ask if their children would like to come along.

3. We inundate them with casseroles in the beginning then tend to back off forgetting them. If you look at the signs of grief, depression comes later on. When you start noticing the blues show up with food. Here’s my favorite line that works for me, “I always make too much food and thought I’d share with you.” Don’t call first just show up. When people are depressed they will make excuses for you to not come over because the house may not look great and they aren’t really in the mood for company. You don’t have to stick around, just drop off the food and go.

4. Listen. This one is hard especially if it includes complaints about the estranged spouse or ailments. Part of being a good friend is being there for them even when it’s just nodding your head and saying, “Uh-huh” on occasion.

5. If you are a close friend or relative show up during the blues phase and clean something. Dishes, vacuum or laundry. Bring along some upbeat music or a comedy video for them to listen to while you clean.

6. One of my friends that went through a divorce was depressed so a few of us chipped in and paid for a massage. We all went so it was a fun day out and lifted her spirits.

One of my sisters suffered post partum depression pretty bad after her second child. I ran her a bath, took care of her baby and did some laundry. A few times I showed up with food.

People need each other, even the ones that seem completely content alone. Don’t forget to reach out to them, it will make you feel better too.

James Taylor knows all about depression.

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