A random conversation reminded him of some personal truths about grieving the loss of his wife.
A few months ago, I was traveling on business. As I sat on the plane, a man approached and sat down in the seat to my right. Once we took off he said “Hello my name is George, how are you today?” I said that I was great and asked him if he was traveling for business or pleasure.
We had a very pleasant conversation talking about what he did for a living, what I did for living. The polite kinds of things people talk about on planes when trying to pass the time on a flight. I can’t explain why, but even though we are having a polite conversation, I sensed that he carried a weight about him, a kind of sadness that was hidden just below the surface of his skin.
I noticed he was wearing a wedding ring, and asked him what his wife did. There was a long silence and he said, “Well that answer is a little bit complicated. I’m 49 years old, and believe it or not I am a widower.” After a long silence, I looked over at him and smiled wistfully and said, “I think you and I may have a little bit more in common than you realize, because I was at one time was a widower too.”
He was quite surprised to meet another man who was a widower, told me that he had not met many. We then shared our respective stories, both of them laced with tragedy and loss. In the next part of the conversation, we got into a discussion about all of the myths that people believe about grieving.
The most interesting part was both of us agreed that most people who had never been through what we had been through, who were not card-carrying members of the club that nobody wanted to belong to (the widower’s club) didn’t really understand grieving at all. We both agreed that there were so many myths about grief that others think are the truth. This reminded me of my book The Sun Still Rises when I wrote about some of the many myths about grief.
Here is an excerpt:
Myth number one: “I know how you feel.”
People will say to you that they “know how you feel” either because they think they do or because they have experienced loss sometime in their life as well. Let me clear that one up right away—no one knows how you feel because no one has lived your life. No one has experienced what you are experiencing right at this moment.
Even though I am a widower and lost my wife I can’t honestly say that I know how you feel, and you can’t honestly say you know how I feel. Everyone experiences grief differently. I have always tried to keep in mind that people who say things like that are people who have good intentions and are not trying to be mean or insensitive.
Unfortunately, the person grieving can actually resent the person saying it because they’re thinking “there is no way on earth that person knows how I feel, because they have not experienced my loss.” It can create anger and resentment.
My first reaction when someone says “I know how you feel” is that the person is arrogant in thinking they could possibly know how I feel. The reality is they are trying to make us feel better, they’re trying to comfort us, and they’re trying to take away our pain so they just say whatever comes to their mind or repeat platitudes that they heard from others in the past. So the best approach when someone says “I know how you feel” is to ignore the words and pay attention to the intent—they’re just trying to be helpful. Really.
No one on earth knows how you feel. Once you admit that to yourself, it is a little bit liberating because you don’t expect anyone to know how you feel because well, they just can’t.
Myth number two: There is a certain way that someone should act when grieving.
This is the one that gets on my nerves the most. As a society we should define what grieving people should be doing and/or not doing. Really? The week after my wife passed away I was sitting at the house Monday through Friday, receiving phone calls from concerned friends and family, receiving visitors at the house, and making funeral arrangements. It was the worst week of my life. It seemed as if the time between Friday night when my wife passed away and the following Saturday afternoon when the funeral was held lasted two long, painful, agonizing months.
On Wednesday of that week my daughter came over to visit and in her hand was the newest Muppet movie on DVD. I asked her what it was and why she had it. She said that “all of us sitting at the house were going to sit down sometime that day and watch the Muppet movie because things were too serious and too grim, and we needed to laugh a little.” It wasn’t a statement—it was a command. I smiled when she said that because I realized that she was right. It was true. We all sat and watched the Muppet movie, enjoyed it and laughed, and it was a nice retreat from a week of hard grieving.
Yes I’m sure that some people would be taken aback by the idea that Cindy’s family was watching a Muppet movie five days after she died. They would say that it may have been “inappropriate” or “weird”, but we really don’t care what they say, or we shouldn’t.
Please don’t miss this point—it is not up to other people to define how you act when you’re grieving. It’s up to you. Grieving is a very personal process, and because it’s a very personal process, it’s going to change depending on each person’s personality, attitude, and experiences. So there is no one way to grieve at all, no right way or wrong way, no normal or abnormal way.
Two weeks after my wife passed away I got a call from a business colleague who had heard about Cindy’s death. When I answered my cell phone we chatted for a while and she asked me where I was. I told her that I was at the mall shopping and she immediately responded with “you are at the mall shopping?” I guess grieving people are not supposed to shop! After thinking about it for a few moments she then said “Well, Shawn, I guess it kind of sounds like you, I mean you always had a great attitude.”
It’s almost as if there is a list—the list of things that grieving people are not supposed to do; anything outside of that list makes people a bit uncomfortable. Oh well. This is one time you don’t need to worry about others—just yourself. Just be you.
Myth number three: There are stages of grief.
I know this is going to ruffle some feathers and cause some controversy, but I do not believe that there are stages of grief. The stages of grief were originally described in a book called On Death and Dying written by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The five stages outlined were denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She developed those theories based on a study of terminally ill patients.
I am not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but I could not disagree with the steps more. Saying that everyone has steps and that there are five of them is saying that everyone experiences grief the same, and that in my experience is just not true. I also think that theory causes grieving people to start to look for what stage they are in, and if the stages are missing, they worry. What if they don’t experience all five of the stages? They may think something is wrong, or they are not grieving “properly”. I do think it was a great book, and it is well worth reading. I will leave it up to you to decide if there are five stages of grief. As for me, I do not believe in them.
Myth number four: Don’t make any decisions.
I have heard many people say that we shouldn’t make any decisions when we are in the process of grieving for the first couple of years. I understand the concept, and I do believe that some major decisions should not be made in the first few months. I don’t think people should go crazy making massive changes in their life before they’re sure that their head is screwed on straight. It would have been bad for me to sell my house and move to Tahiti with a young supermodel (no really it would!)
However, you will find you will be asked to make a boatload of critically important decisions almost immediately after you’ve had a loss. You have to decide on funeral arrangements, burials, and many other financial arrangements in fairly quick order. In the first week after my wife died I had to decide on an autopsy, a viewing (whether to have one or not), the funeral (where, when, and how), and if my wife was going to be buried or cremated. Since then I’ve had to make a whole host of decisions about everything financially, spiritually, socially, and logistically. The list goes on and on.
In a later chapter I will be reviewing with you some of the things that you’re going to need to decide on and give you some suggestions on how to make the best possible decisions for you.
Myth number five: Companies that you deal with will have empathy for your situation and will have systems set up to help you as you are grieving.
This could not be further from the truth, and unfortunately, I discovered the opposite. Dealing with my bank to change over my accounts was very painful, laborious, and infuriating. A few days after my wife passed away I went to the bank and had her name removed from both the checking and savings account. I then went home and logged on to my bill pay account for my bank. My wife had been in charge of paying the bills and I wanted to see all of the accounts that were set up so that I could begin taking over that responsibility. Unfortunately, she did not leave me the password for the online checking so I called my bank. I patiently explained to them that my wife had passed away, and I would now be taking care of paying the bills so I needed to get a password reset. After talking to five different people I finally spoke to a supervisor, who told me they could not reset the password, and I would have to set up the bill pay all over again. I was stunned and angry. “I have been banking with you folks forever—I don’t understand what the problem is.” She explained in a very condescending tone that the bill pay account was not our account, but was Cindy’s account and Cindy’s alone. They would be happy to reset the account, but when it was reset, the bill pay would be wiped out and I would have to re-set up every account in the system. Resetting up all of the accounts in the system for bill pay took me over five hours. What a headache.
Throughout my experience as a widower I have had many unpleasant dealings with banks, phone companies, credit card companies, clothing companies, retail stores, and catalogs. All of them made it difficult and very laborious to change an account to my name only, even though I have great credit. As I said to someone at my giant phone company, they have forgotten about the customer and the customer’s experience, and are caught up solely in their processes. The only problem is the processes are not set up to handle someone dying. It has been almost two years, and yes, in today’s mail I received from my big phone company yet another bill with my late wife’s name on it. I have had at least nine discussions with them about the name change on the account, but that just doesn’t seem to matter. If I were King of the world, I would make every customer service representative of every company take empathy training, and force companies to develop a process to more empathetically handle the death of someone’s loved one.
Myth number six: There is a timeframe for grief.
When I worked in corporate America, each company had a grievance policy. Their grievance policy often stated that someone would get one week off for the death of a spouse, three days off for the death of a parent, and two days off for the death of some other family member. Where did these numbers come from? How did they arrive at the idea that one week was enough for the death of a spouse, but people only needed three days for the death of a parent? It is a ridiculous concept. Some people grieve quickly and heal quickly; some people grieve slowly and heal slowly. There is no right or wrong answer—everyone has to grieve in their own time. Just don’t get caught up in society’s view of how long grieving should last.
When our flight was over, we shook hands and knew we had both bonded, and promised to stay in touch, call and email each other. We both left the plane and we both had good intentions, but we didn’t stay in touch. We both went back to our lives. I do know this — we both had learned something in that conversation. That there was one soul, one person in the world, who really totally understood. We were not alone.
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