When my husband died I had a group of strong, empathic, pragmatic, and compassionate women surrounding me, a loving albeit bereft family, and the men for whom I worked urging me back to my job (though in truth I should have paid them rather than the reverse). Last, available to me were extraordinary professionals who ventured into a deep and honest partnership that included some of their feelings and experience, too. My husband’s suicide affected them as well and they did me the great favor of telling that truth.
My force field backed me up. I was the primary support for my son and when I wasn’t who I needed to be, they took over. They walked with him, talked with him, distracted him, refocused him and made sure he had homes everywhere he turned.
It’s wrenching watching someone you care about struggle with loss. The present as known is snatched away and often left chaotic. The changed future is yet unconstructed. You’re part of a team sweeping up an old life, frequently going on instinct, and feeling your way through an emotional mine field.
Support is courageous and exhausting and it comes in many forms.
My parents couldn’t sit with my son or me during paroxysms of sobbing. It was too painful for them. They felt better in control with logistical issues. In part this reflected generational training—more comfortable with doing, less so with thinking and feeling. They were also mourning the loss of their son-in-law as they tried to soothe their grieving grandson and their widowed daughter. It was all more than they felt capable of handling.
Instead my dad busied himself by organizing my husband’s tools and straightening the garage; my mother cooked and saw to it that my house was neat as visitors arrived with their condolences. She preferred to stay behind the scenes in the kitchen, a warm and familiar place for her. She filled my home with a sense of normalcy in the midst of upheaval. She let others she believed better equipped step in for the emotional clean up.
My brother handled finances. He tracked my husband’s commissions and intervened when he thought they’d been paid incorrectly or when I had questions. He dogged insurance companies and my husband’s bankrupt pension plan. He thanked people I might have unknowingly missed and made sure no kindness went unacknowledged. He became a place of consolation for my son.
The big work was done by my closest pal. She began that first evening when she retrieved my cozy, torn, paper-thin sweat pants, and squeezed their comfort and reliability into an overnight bag. She continued as she turned away nosy neighbors, and was gutsy enough to send well-wishers home when we needed rest. During the funeral, beside another friend in the church pew behind me, her hand touched my shoulder so I wouldn’t forget she was there. She played the role of CSO, chief support officer, triaging, making requests of others, and stepping aside when she saw I could manage for myself.
When asked what qualities are present in extraordinary support I’m sometimes at a loss to describe them. I offer two stories instead; one about my pal, the other about the dear friend who sat next to her at the funeral mass.
First, my pal, small and mighty. Huddled on my sofa late one afternoon she held me as I cried. Profuse tears, along with my nose, ran down my cheeks, dripped to my chin, and onto her bare arms.
“You have snot rolling down your arm,” I noted suddenly and began to rise to grab a washcloth and a tissue.
The second woman, whose hand set upon my other shoulder at the funeral, has been a friend since childhood. Shortly after returning to her out-of-state home she sent me this note and a book.
“I may presume too much… I was in the bookstore the other night trying to find something to help me know what to say/what not to say—something that might help me learn more about loss and grieving. As I started reading through this book words and phrases from last week’s conversations kept jumping out at me.
“I may presume too much… but perhaps this small volume can help provide some affirmation and comfort.”
In truth anyone who could write such a note needs no direction, but the book, Companion Through the Darkness, by Stephanie Ericsson, became a friend who knew all the grief inside me. I have it still. A symbol of abiding friendship with its sender, her note tucked inside with other tender treasures.
Not everyone can be inspiring first-line support. I’ve been solid, steady support for some while with others a peripheral presence. In flight attendant language, sometimes I’ve been occupied putting on my own mask before helping the person next to me.
So, the topic at hand — support the support. Some of you will be comfortable in your discomfort. Literally and figuratively you’re able to handle snot rolling down your arm. And some of you won’t. Maybe because you’ve experienced your own loss and another’s pain acts as kindling, starting a brushfire of sorrow within you. Perhaps you don’t feel your relationship is close enough to step in without intruding but you’d still like to help. Or, as my parents, you feel better tending to logistics.
Support the support. You’re uniquely suited to this role. First-line supporters need sustenance, too. They need to tell someone what they’ve seen and heard, and felt. They need rest. They need a break. My support system needed their own support system to love and hug them. To acknowledge and affirm the difficult work they were doing, to give them a safe place to restore. My brother needed the safety and solace of his wife’s support so he could again work with his sister and nephew.
Those who cooked and delivered food to my home and my snot-proof friend’s also brought tears to her eyes. They saw her and recognized she too had lost a friend. While she cared for us she also did her job and attended to her children. Phone calls to her about her, food made for her, kind words for her, were fuel for her long days. As I had support in supporting my son, she needed reinforcement in order to buttress me.
Support the support. Maybe you’re snot-proof. Can’t write a letter that lasts a lifetime. It’s okay. Don’t worry. No sweat. You’re enough just the way you are.
After the initial flurry of activity begins to slow it’s the perfect time to take stock of the situation. You’ll note cakes and casseroles no longer being delivered. Daily phone calls dwindling. Still hard at work you’ll see first-line support walking the bereaved back to life. They hang in after the loss has become old news, and nearly everyone else is again on schedule.
That’s when you pick your spot; then spot those doing the heavy lifting. They need your help. Believe me, there’s enough work around for everyone. Support the support.