Here’s what you should know about grief - what people need, what sucks, what works, what sucks.
Cape Town - I’ve recently been doing some work for women’s magazines. They always have neat lists for lots of very important things: 7 Ways To Win Him Back!; 10 Foolproof Ideas For A Table Centrepiece That Doesn’t Contain Bats; 100 Ways To Comb Your Eyebrows; 5 Life Hacks For Having Breasts!.
It’s all good. They pay me. I eat lettuce noisily at my desk. Last week I got an entire PR kit of wintergreen gels and creams. I think you can use them inbaking.
But on a serious note, I have, sadly, become acquainted with a lot of grief over the past few years. I have sat in the reception area of the Salt River morgue and smelt the stench of loss being pumped through the air conditioner. I have stroked the face of a dead brother.
And in the past few weeks, I have sat with my sister-in-law and witnessed her bravery and grace as she struggles with the loss of her son. I don’t want to be defined by grief, but it turns out I know some stuff about it. And I know some stuff about what it requires.
So I have compiled a list of 10 things you should know about grief - what people need, what sucks, what works, what sucks. Did I say that already? Because, truth is, when you’ve lost a loved one and your world has been shifted, like some terrible tectonic event only you can see; and when you feel like the loneliest person in the world; the most afflicted, tainted person in the universe - one who doesn’t care about washing your hair and sees radars everywhere - the right words at the right time, or the right movement just when you need it, can make the world of difference.
Don’t send flowers. I’m not sure which sadist dreamt up the idea of death flowers, but it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Flowers are for happy things - weddings, birthdays, love days, thank yous. Death flowers just serve as a horrible reminder of something gone. My sister-in-law gave hers away; I let my nieces chop mine up and sprinkle them in the garden. They said it was like confetti.
If the bereft person is fond of a drink, bring alcohol. Grieving is not a time for clear heads and Banting; it’s for drinking and drowning and disappearing and returning.
Send food, but not all at the same time. A quiche or two is very helpful, as the furthest thing on a grieving person’s mind is shopping, cooking or eating. But a mountain of lasagnes and soups on the second day can be overwhelming. Work out a schedule among friends and family so there is a constant and appropriate flow of food over a few months.
If they smoke, take them smokes. When I was waiting in hospital for news of my brother, all I wanted was a cigarette. A kind woman - who was waiting for news of her husband - took my hand and led me to a bench outside and we smoked in silence. She gave me her cigarettes when she left. “You need them. I’ll get some more,” she said.
Don’t tell a bereft person to go to gym, or go for a walk, or “Come stand-up paddling with us because it’ll do you good to get out!” Just sit. And listen. And touch.
Don’t say nothing. Even if it’s a cliche - “I am so sorry for your loss” - acknowledgment makes the person feel less alone. However, do not go to dangerous extremes and say “Time will heal”. You might (and should) be punched in the face.
Pay for airtime. If your bereaved loved one is on a prepaid phone contract, one of the most practical ways you can help is by buying airtime. So many calls have to be made. Horrible calls.
Don’t wish it away. Yes, it might make you feel more comfortable, but pretending the death hasn’t happened is like wiping out someone’s entire being. Sit. Witness. Stay.
Don’t be afraid to laugh. In the depths of mourning, everything is confusing and weird and fuelled by adrenalin. We watched Jackass: The Movie the night after my brother died. We laughed like crack addicts. It was a relief.
Be direct and decisive. A person who has just lost everything is often incapable of making decisions. With kindness and intelligence, don’t be scared to make decisions for them. My sister-in-law’s dearest friend sussed the situation and decreed she was moving in for the week. She slept in the spare room and shared coffee and wine and tears and love. She wasn’t scared. None of us must be scared. Because this is us. All of us. And we need to get better at doing this.
* Helen Walne is an award-winning columnist and writer based in Cape Town.