Facing Grief

Pictured: An excerpt from "The Empathy Exams" by Leslie Jamison

On December 5th, 2013, my brave little brother, David, succumbed in his battle with brain cancer. His doctors had originally given him six months following the appearance of his first, aggressive tumor; he lived for two and a half years. And when I say he lived, he really lived.

On this blog, I have previously catalogued Dave’s slow return to undergraduate life (he graduated with honors in May 2013), his exciting travels to Asia and Central America (always with a medical bracelet on his arm and his chemotherapy pills in his backpack), and the relationships he shared with loved ones (whom he supported and cared for as often as we cared for him).

Now, the generations of family members and friends who are left behind are left with the task of making sense of his passing, and his absence. And as many people who have fought and lost and grieved can attest (and which this family eloquently wrote about in this much-forwarded New York Times article), it is impossible to predict which people in your life, when pressed, will choose to face the process of loss with you, or shrink from it.

When our friends found out Dave’s last tumor would likely take his life, many asked, "How can I help?" or wrote to us, "If there's anything I can do..."

Others simply took the initiative, perhaps sensing that a person caught in the midst of a paradigm-shattering trauma is not the most capable delegator. These people brought common-sense items like hot soup, clean sheets, funny movies and homemade mac 'n' cheese.

Inspiringly, some went in a more creative direction, assigning themselves projects geared around their particular strengths and making offerings of the best things they could muster. A letterpress artist created a custom artwork for David for everyone to sign with their best wishes as they visited him. A professional skateboarder asked his company to create a special board with David's name on it, to be hung in his room. An art therapist came with a stack of her paints and sketchpads, tied neatly with ribbon, in case Dave wanted to paint in his bed. A number of friends brought CDs with Dave's favorite songs, and we watched with joy as he listened with eyes closed, mouthing the words even after he lost the ability to speak. And a touring musician friend brought her guitar and played the blues, her clear and perfect voice filling the room with a feeling of deep calm and human comfort that was hard to find during those last dark days.

The actions of these amazing friends spoke so much louder than words. They communicated to us just what we needed to hear. We know we can’t fix everything. We know we can’t cure his illness. We know we can’t make the tears go away. We may not even be able to understand how you feel. But we can step in to help change the sheets and make you soup.

In the meantime, sadly, the silence of the people who did not call, write or visit was deafening.

I heard in this silence a sense of terror, of incompetence, of paralysis, of obliviousness or denial. And while I couldn’t know how all the silent ones felt for sure (I was, frankly, too busy to call those who didn’t call us), I did have one opportunity to talk with a close friend who had seemed to be avoiding me, after I had helped this friend through many hard times. I told her how much her neglect had hurt me.

"I've just been afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing," she explained. "I don't want to fail you."

I told her I had sensed that. I understood it. To try something and risk failure or rejection from a friend in need--that was a scary thing. But that scariness, I felt, was not a good enough excuse for the silence. I was surprised by how angry I felt as I said this.

"The only way you can fail is by doing nothing," I told her.

Since my brother passed away, I have found myself in conversations with many other grieving people. Ironically, despite the unavoidable fact of death in every human life, the most common refrains I have heard from the grieving are “I don’t know what to do,” “I feel like I’m not doing this right,” and “I feel so alone.”

We seem to have gained so much as a secular and diverse society, a country of people who can move around, do as they please, rewrite old rules, right old wrongs. But what we have gained in individual freedom we seem to have lost in timeless community traditions, especially those surrounding death. Religious Christians still have wakes, and Jews still sit shiva, but the rest of us, especially those belonging to a younger and less traditional generation, find ourselves too often improvising, with sometimes sloppy results.

However, I have found some excellent resources and articles on the topic of coping with grief, whether you are close to the bereaved or supporting someone who has recently lost a loved one. I provide a sampling of these below. 

To me, the bottom line of all of these wise advisings is this: when you look back on the last moments of someone’s life, you want to remember that whatever you gave to them and their loved ones, whether it was clean sheets or sheet music, you gave your best. Because regardless of our differences in religion, in temperament, in talent and in strength, I believe that we all believe that a dying loved one deserves our best. 

Resources on coping with grief:  

  • “On Death and Dying,” by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. This book provides much-needed information about what the dying need and want from their families and friends. A modern classic.
  • “The Year of Magical Thinking,” by Joan Didion. An excellent and revered essayist, Didion pulls together wisdom from poets like Emily Post to Gerard Manley Hall to make sense of her own personal tragedy (losing her husband to a heart attack while her daughter lies gravely ill in the hospital).
  • “The Art of Presence,” a much talked-about column by David Brooks that appeared in the New York Times less than a month after my brother passed away. A beautiful narrative, interwoven with wisdom for others who are grieving. (A sample piece of advice: “Do bring soup.”)
  • “Avoiding Faux Pas with the Grieving,” the equally enlightening summary of responses to Brooks’ article, which included several suggestions from Times readers who “reported astonishingly insensitive responses to their suffering.” (My favorite: “Don’t say, 'Please call if you need anything.' That call rarely comes. Go and do. Wash the dishes. Take out the garbage. Do something practical, and then come back in a couple of days and do it again.”)
  • The New York Times’ dedicated page for Grief 

Ryan Rose Weaver is a writer and teacher living in New York. Her younger brother, David, lost his battle to brain cancer in December 2013. 

Read other posts by Ryan:

Our First Brain Tumor: Early Lessons Learned (September 2012) 
Adjusting to the New Normal (November 2012)
Back to Work: Coping With Cancer in the Workplace (January 2013)
Traveling With Cancer (January 2013)
What Should Siblings Do in the Face of Cancer? (February 2013)
Juggling Cancer and Classwork (March 2013)
Long Distance Love (April 2013)
Inviting Cancer Into Your Social Life (May 2013)

How Do You Define Survivor? (June 2013)