Feb. 29 has always been a strange day. For most people, it’s an odd occurrence every fourth year—but for me, it’s the day my sister died.
The phone call came from my eldest sister on leap year afternoon in 2008. “You have to come right away,” she said. At that moment, I felt a huge surge of dread. The first stage of grief is denial and for me it was a doozy. As I hung up the phone, her voice echoed in my ears while I surveyed the living room.
My husband and I had both worked at the same company and we both recently lost our jobs in a downsize. We were about to lose our rental home and move in with my in-laws. Our newborn daughter was just shy of five months old. It felt like the world was collapsing around me. My sister was 38 years old. How could she die? Right NOW?
Anger and bargaining—stages 2 and 3 of grief—set in within hours. Same-day tickets across the country from Seattle to Houston would deplete the remainder of our savings and I started weighing the stress of traveling with a baby against not going at all.
“Would anyone even notice if I didn’t show up?” I asked myself.
Arriving at my parents’ front door the next morning pushed me straight to the final stage: acceptance. It would be months before I bounced back to the depression stage I had bypassed. I needed quite a lot of time to reflect and process what had happened.
Each year since then, when Feb. 28 rolls over to Mar. 1, I feel a sense of displacement. If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? was replaced with, If a death anniversary is invisible on the calendar, did it really happen?
The word “acceptance” makes people think everything is okay, but often that is not the case. Healing takes months or years—or may never fully happen at all. Knowing the right thing to say or do (or not to say or do), with a person who is grieving is incredibly important. This holds true not just with death, but with the loss of a job, divorce, illness or other major life events.
So, what can we do? How can we as a community and as parents do our best in these situations—and teach our children to do the same?
Use supportive responses instead of shift responses.
In the 1980s, sociologist Charles Derber coined the term “conversational narcissism.” He observed that people in social situations tend to shift attention to themselves or something they are familiar with. It happens all too often when someone is depressed or in mourning and we are unsure of what to say.
We tend to use phrases such as “I know exactly how you feel,” even if we don’t have a clue how the person is feeling. Instead, focus on using a support response which lets the person know you are paying attention and they are being heard. Rather than start a story about your own experiences, give them your ear and the freedom to grieve.
Grieving Person: “I’m so overwhelmed right now.”
Shift Response: “I know exactly how you feel. Did I tell you about the time…”
Instead, try this:
Grieving Person: “I’m so overwhelmed right now.”
Supportive Response: “You are doing your best. Would you like to sit and talk?”
Many of us want to do something to help take away the pain of loss. We offer to bring food, watch children, run errands and other kind favors. It’s important to remember if you offer to help– do it. Take the initiative and help however you can. The person in mourning is in shock and may not be able to respond normally for some time.
Establish contact and be there for the person and/or family. My best friend didn’t want a girls’ night out to cheer her up when she announced her divorce, just a bottle of wine and a friend to talk to. The depression and grief period lasts long past Day 1, so check in often for as long as they need you. Your presence can make all the difference.
Don’t take it personally.
Be prepared for angry outbursts. Anger is often focused on the wrong person and someone who is hurting may show hostility toward everyone. Patience is a huge factor here, as I learned when my husband lost his job. That awful feeling of helplessness can manifest in bad ways and you may be caught in the line of fire. Give time, give space and give them and yourself a break.
Four years after my sister died, my husband’s grandmother passed away in January, followed by my father in July. I knew it was time to talk with my daughter about death. Every child is different and there is no right way to handle this, but the wrong way is to ignore it.
Children are often shooed out of rooms when “adults are talking” and they’re left to piece things together for themselves. Death, illness and divorce can be awkward topics, but even a broad strokes approach will take some of the mystery and scariness out of it for the little ones. Many children’s books are available on a variety of tough themes, including kids’ books about death.
Don’t assume and don’t judge.
Every person and every family will handle situations in the manner they best see fit. The truth is, that may not always mesh with what you would do. One person may choose an elaborate burial service and another may opt for a simple cremation.
It’s not the time to bring up religion or finances or pass judgement over someone else’s choices. But it IS an excellent opportunity to practice restraint and keep your opinions to yourself and to teach your kids to be polite and respectful as well.