My daughter was graduating from Santa Monica College and as the graduation date got closer, I began to feel the weight of my husband’s absence. He had died 10 years earlier and this was another milestone that he would miss. A week before the graduation, an event page popped up in my email. There was a “Death Over Dinner Party” scheduled in Venice, a few miles from where I was staying. I had always been curious about this event and the timing seemed perfect.
Opening the wooden gate, I walked towards the front door. The host invited me in and with a sweep of her arm, pointed to a table set for ten with beautiful Mexican floral plates, silverware, and sunflowers. I added my couscous and tomato salad contribution to the table and found a seat next to the window. People entered the room quietly making eye contact and a simple nod of the head with a smile. When everyone had arrived, the host invited us to pass the food and started with a few short question-prompts to begin the conversation.
When it was my turn to share my story, I began to speak about my husband’s death ten years earlier and how our daughter was graduating from college. Then I started to sob. Everyone waited for me to be ready to continue to speak. In between sobs and blowing my nose, I talked about the sadness I felt that my husband was once again missing an event in our daughter’s life and the grief I felt for my daughter’s loss, too. I shared how lonely I felt and yet, in that moment I didn’t feel alone. When I was complete, each person acknowledged me in a simple way and we continued to go around the table, listening to each person’s story of grief and loss.
When I left the house, a few hours later, I felt lighter. It was a safe haven to express the pain, to be seen and heard, to release it and then move back into the world.
Life goes on but so does grief. When you have experienced a loss, it makes you vulnerable. There is a scar that will never go away. Something has happened that has rocked your world. You learn that Life is fragile.
In healing grief, there is a stage of acceptance and even in the acceptance, death can feel surreal. My husband died sixteen years ago and there are times when I can’t believe he is not here. It happens when there are life events like Covid-19 and feeling, “Wow, I can’t believe he is not here for this. I wonder what he would think.” In that moment, I miss him deeply. No more pillow talk. No more sharing ideas.
In grief, we move forward but there is no returning to normal. I think that is the biggest misconception, that you will return to “normal”, and that healing is linear.
Grief can surface at a birthday or anniversary but not always.
Grief can be situational, arising as if no time has passed because of a current event.
Grief can be activated by a scent or sight, sound, feeling, or another death or loss.
Grief can create a spiral of feelings decades later with a tsunami of emotion that feels debilitating.
My brother died from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) in 1961, when I was 4 years old. He was two months old. There were only two times I remember hearing my parents mention my brother, Kenneth. Once when I was a teenager blaring Alice Cooper’s song, “Dead Babies Can’t Take Care of Themselves,” and my dad yelling at me to turn off that music and how I was being insensitive to my mother. Insensitive? She never talked about the death of her baby, how was I to know?
And the other time was when my son, Cooper, had his second open heart surgery when he was one year old. My parents came to visit him in the hospital. Sitting across from each other, my dad told my mom that whenever he was in Massachusetts for business, he would stop at the cemetery and visit their son at the family plot. My mom said, “I never knew that.” My parents were in their sixties and their son had died thirty years earlier. I felt like I was witnessing an intimate moment, sharing something that had been unspoken for so long.
With grief, instead of assuming that you know what someone wants or needs, keep the door open for conversation. If a friend or family member tells you they don’t want to talk about it, honor that in the moment. Give it space. Invite the conversation in a year or two or even ten. Let them know you think about their loss and want to understand what they are experiencing, even if it comes twenty years later. Are you willing to ask and to listen?
- Grief is messy and dark so practice being with the discomfort.
- Reflect on your own mortality, including your fears.
- Hold space for someone’s grief with compassion, not pity.
- It’s okay to feel uncomfortable.
Examples of words from other cultures that hold the door open. All of the words invite an ongoing relationship with the deceased:
Greece: May you live to remember her.
Jewish: May her memory be a blessing.
Egypt: May her spirit remain with you in your life.
There are wonderful, supportive communities where people can express grief. Your family and friends do not have to be the only source of support. But, when grief is treated like a “conversation hot potato”, it limits connection and intimacy. It closes the door to real conversations about life… and death.
Angel image: tim-mossholder–GtSbrl25Ns-unsplash
Andrea Hylen: Ancestral Lineage Healing Practitioner, Author of Heal My Voice: An Evolutionary Woman’s Journey. Mental Health Fitness and Somatic-Intuitive Coach, Creator of The Incubator: On-line Co-working Space for Cultural Creatives.