Since my mother’s death in May 2011, I’ve been processing some rather eclectic thoughts on grief, mourning and what comes afterward. Unfortunately, we live in a world where tragedies - from devastating cancers to heartbreaking massacres of innocents - are rampant, and many of us are left broken in some way as a result. Some of us have strong support structures, with local family and strong friendships. Others aren’t so lucky. Each person reflects and copes with tragedy differently, and it’s often hard to know how best to help. But there are a number of ways in which we, as citizens of the world and in our local micro-communities, can support those who grieve. Here are five of them:
1. Seeing the unpainted corner
In one Jewish tradition, we are asked to leave a corner of the house unpainted, to indicate our eternal mourning of the fallen Temple. That unpainted corner is where each mourner metaphorically lives - certainly for the week of shiva (the seven-day Jewish mourning period), the following month and the year of mourning, but also beyond the mandated end of the mourning period. Once you are able to see that corner of your community, and the person who dwells in it, you understand that there are people all around you who are not currently capable of celebration, or who may be abstaining from enjoying music, laughing at comedy, or even having a few drinks, because that is the custom during a period of mourning. Even if their official mourning time is over, that doesn't mean the loss is magically healed.
Take your cue from the person who has suffered a loss. If they're hanging on the periphery, approach them so that you can be on the periphery together; be a conduit for their slow reconnection to community. You can offer a hand, or a word. Hugs are a natural instinct but can be awkward - the mourner may not feel up to a hug and may feel uncomfortable saying no if one is offered, so be alert to their body language and emotions, and don’t be offended if they turn you down. Don't encourage them to dance, sing, clap or celebrate in an attempt to help get their minds of things - let them guide you as to what they're feeling up to in terms of community participation and support.
2. ‘I know how you feel’
A very well intended, but ultimately misguided, statement. While mourners are all grieving a loss, the depth and character of that grief can be very different, so never say "I know how you feel." Instead, go with, "I can't imagine your pain right now. I know it isn't the same, but what helped me when I lost my mother was X," or "I lost my mother a year ago. I know it's not the same, but if you want to talk, please let me know." The idea is to acknowledge the singularity of the loss, but let the mourner know that he has resources in you and the community.
3. ’Is there anything I can do?’
Of course you want to help. And so you offer, generously. You might think that leaving the question open, grants the mourner the chance to answer as she wishes. But this may be too broad a question for a mourner to absorb, especially in the early moments of mourning. Some mourners even perceive this question as insincere, because, obviously, there’s nothing a single person can do to erase the pain of loss.
What you can do is to make specific offers: "I'm going to the supermarket tomorrow, so if you need anything, let me know." This way, you're drafting a specific scenario that the mourner will understand is no imposition on your time or schedule, and which sees to the physical/nutritional needs of the individual who grieves. Or, at the shiva house, ask, "Can I get you a cup of coffee, or a bagel?" takes some of the burden of decision away from the mourner and makes him or her feel comforted and taken care of. Plus, your offer to do something specific instead of something nebulous lets the mourner know that you really mean it.
4. Giving gifts
From your presence at a minyan (prayer quorum), when you listen to a mourner's kaddish and say amen, to a smile at a mourner who may be going through a difficult moment, to a date for coffee, there are many gifts you can give someone who's in a process of grief. Candy is sweet and will undoubtedly be consumed, but may result in guilt and weight gain. Flowers may be too bright a reminder of the darkness of grief. Books are something concrete that you can hand to a mourner and say, "here's something that will help," but because all experiences are different, what helps (if anything helps) also differs.
Sometimes the best thing to do for the mourner is send a list of the books that helped you, and then give them an Amazon gift certificate so they can buy the one that resonates most for them. Perhaps they'll use it to buy a massage, or some other thing that will be of comfort to them. But they will receive your message: that you care for them, and want to provide something to them that they might not have otherwise been inclined to buy. You're asking them to designate space for comfort in their lives, and leaving the mode and timing of said comfort up to them.
5. Support beyond 7, 30, 11 and 12
The structure of Jewish life provides lots of points of charting a linear, chronological progress of reconnecting the mourner and the community over the course of a year. The seven days of shiva, the 30 days of shloshim and, of course, the year of mourning (with 11 months of kaddish). After a year, people stop seeing you as a mourner, which is good, but grief is not linear, nor is it a course of treatment that ends when the medicine is gone. While time does its best to erode the sharp edges of immediate grief by erecting pillars of time between the wound and the wounded, those of us who have had our eyes opened to mortality through our grief need comfort for not just a 12-month period, but beyond, in unexpected places and unpredictable times. There are those who help make the kaddish minyan during that first year and then there are those who float around the mourner in the aftermath of the year's conclusion to reinforce their strength as they move forward in their lives. And all are important. Particularly to single community members who may not have immediate family around to support them.
Consoling mourners can be uncomfortable, sad, awkward and unfulfilling. When it comes to what is “proper” or “helpful” in such situations, most of us are quite literally at a loss. What’s important is – as much as possible – for community members to continue to show up and risk awkward conversations, and for mourners to continue to decode the palimpsest, to see beyond the words themselves and perceive the intention from which those collections of vocalized letters originate. And to not beat ourselves up if things don’t go exactly according to plan, because the time after loss is inherently tumultuous and unpredictable. All we can try to do is be there for each other, and to open ourselves up to the possibility of connecting with community, comfort and consolation.
Esther D. Kustanowitz writes about pop culture, Jewish life, social media and creativity. She is working on a book about grief and mourning, tentatively titled “Nothing Helps (But This Might Help): A Guide to Loss and What Comes After.” She blogs at http://myurbankvetch.com and lives in Los Angeles.