I want to talk about grief, and specifically how we as Americans traditionally deal with an unexpected death in our communities. I think we could do a better job.
I could write this in the abstract, but maybe it's more effective to say that this post was requested by a dear friend who lost her 12 year old son two years ago. He had an undiagnosed heart condition and collapsed at soccer camp.
The following months and years have been a nightmare, of course. How could it be otherwise? But, there are some things that might have made it less so.
It's easy to be shocked and dismayed at the way most of our news outlets treat the victims of tragedy. My friend was hounded and harassed by the media immediately following her son's death. Including but not limited to helicopters hovering over the house. This is inexcusable.
What can we do?
STOP BEING A CONSUMER OF THIS TYPE OF COVERAGE.
Understand that what those folks are doing when they conduct themselves in such a way is providing what "we" want. Our culture is addicted to "real drama". We need to understand this and ask ourselves why. Write letters to your news providers, especially the local ones. Let them know that this is not what you want. Demand a different kind of coverage that respects the privacy and personal boundaries of people who are in crisis.
The next issue is how we relate to someone we know who has been effected by something like this.
Many times over the past two years my friend has been in the grocery store or some other public place and people who know her have literally run away. Presumably their fear of saying or doing the wrong thing is so intense that they flee instead of lending support.
Death is scary. It's the biggest scariest thing there is. But how we conduct ourselves in the face of it can say a lot about who we are. People who have lost loved ones, especially unexpectedly, need the support of their communities. Not just in the few weeks following, but for years. Again, this is not something that Americans excel at. We love to band together and get something done. We are generally great in the moments following a crisis. We drop everything, dig in, and lend a hand. We take photos so we can remember how great we did that. We feel good about being of service. All good stuff.
But, the pain doesn't end for the family when the novelty wears off. It's just beginning. Too often the families who were suffocated by support in the days and maybe even weeks after a tragedy are suddenly left alone. The unspoken message is to "move on with your life", "get over it", "don't wallow".
What can we do?
Set up a system of support that is sustainable over the long term. No one person can support a family through something like this. It's commonly heard that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, the sad fact is that it should take a village to lose one too. What if ten families worked together to provide a couple of meals a week, some general house cleaning, child care, whatever is needed? No one person needs to feel burdened, and the family in need feels supported over time, not just in the moment.
It's OK to say "what can I do?" It's OK to say "I don't know what to say". It's OK to be awkward and overwhelmed by how to approach a family in a time like this. It's not OK to slink away from someone you cared about so you won't be uncomfortable. I guarantee that will leave you feeling worse. Give them a call. Write a card. Show up with a bottle of wine and a bag of M and M's.
Death is not contagious. Grief is not a communicable disease. It's hard. It's messy. It doesn't always follow the rules of social conduct that help us all know what to do when. There is a way to know how to help though.
(My friend Deb and her husband Ralph are amazing people, as was their son Josh. They have set up an incredible foundation that helps provide early cardiac screenings for kids. Please check out their website )