Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve. – Rabbi Earl Grollman
How are you? Three little words. Sometimes we ask them in passing, not even waiting for an answer. At other times we ask in a more perfunctory way. And then there are the times we ask in a way that says, “Tell me your truth. I really want to know.”
In recent months, each time I would speak to my dad, I would ask him, “How are you dad?” But I always followed those three words with this, “Dad, I’m asking because I really want to know, so answer me honestly. How are you?” My father would often sigh, take a deep breath and answer, “I’m not doing so good.” And then we would talk. Sometimes we talked for a very long time, other times the conversations were shorter. But each time, I would offer my dad my presence, I would listen, and I would share with him. I did not offer him platitudes, there was no purpose in them. He was in real pain, and he needed to have that pain acknowledged, to share his burden and to feel safe that his struggles would be met with care, with respect and with love. I’d like to believe that I was able to do that for him. That he carried with him the knowledge that I did not take lightly the darkness he felt surrounded him and the fears & worries that kept him up at night and clouded his days.
And now, here I am. It is just a little over two weeks since my father committed suicide. I am profoundly sad, and I am struggling with the very real & painful aftermath of how my father died.
People ask me, “How are you?” Some ask in passing, the obligatory words to the mourner. Some don’t bother asking at all. Their silence is deafening. Some ask & then, with the best of intentions, offer platitudes. “Don’t think about how your father died. Think only about the life he lived & the good times.” “You have to know that your father’s suicide had nothing at all to do with your family.” “You have to be strong for your mother, for your children.” And others ask, with hearts ready to receive my grief, my hurt and my sadness.
Here is the thing I’ve learned. So many people are uncomfortable with grief. They want to pretty it up, make you feel better and offer you a better and more hopeful way to look at your loss. It comes from a good place, at least most of the time. People who care about you, want to see you happy, smiling, embracing life. But, grief is a journey, it is a process. And the grief around suicide adds a painful, complex and heart-wrenching layer that, if you’ve not lived it (and I hope you never do) is truly beyond the realm of understanding.
I get up every day. I put one foot in front of the other. I busy myself with life, errands, things around the house. I take care of my children, go to appointments, prepare for our upcoming move. I eat, I go for a walk. And I grieve. And I grapple. And I miss my father. And I regret that I couldn’t do more to help him, that I didn’t see just how deep his pain went. I cry, I talk, I reflect. I reach out to support systems so that I can be around people who understand this particular kind of loss. And I simply allow myself to feel.
Grief isn’t easy. It isn’t pretty. It can’t be wished away. And no matter how hard we may try to bury it, it will find a way in. Grief is a journey, we simply must walk through it. The grief surrounding suicide does not come with a compass, there is no road map, and it can feel so very isolating and confusing. So each step forward feels more uncertain, unsure and at times, unsettling. But I walk, I breathe & I cry. I may stop and sit, perhaps to reflect, or perhaps because I feel so very tired. Sadness will leave you feeling that way.
But I believe in my heart that the only way to healing, is to journey through the grief. I do not do it on a timetable. I can’t. I won’t. I loved my father. I lost my father. My father committed suicide. And I am grieving.
So, if you ask me those three words, “How are you?” Ask with the intention of knowing, of listening, of simply being present. Ask knowing you have no answers, and that is okay. Ask with a willingness to simply sit in silence with me, or allow me to cry in your company. Ask in a way that honors my grief. And in that way, you help me to honor my father. Ask with the intention of truly knowing, or please… simply don’t ask at all.
How are you? Three little words. It is in the asking, that you can make all the difference to someone who is learning to live with such a deep & profound loss.
We can endure much more than we think we can; all human experience testifies to that. All we need to do is learn not to be afraid of pain. Grit your teeth and let it hurt. Don’t deny it, don’t be overwhelmed by it. It will not last forever. One day, the pain will be gone and you will still be there. – Rabbi Harold Kushner