When I was twenty-seven, Daddy died following a long struggle with prostate cancer. I opened handwritten Hallmark cards from friends that read, “In deepest sympathy” and emails that read, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” The few who called asked, “How’s your mom?" My heart wailed, "Ask me about me please ask about me."
But then my head told my heart to stop being selfish: Of course they’re right to be most concerned about your grieving mom.
Only a year and a half earlier, I’d lost my older brother Stephen due to a tragic, unexpected death. We’d all expected that the next funeral we’d attend would be Daddy’s, but here we were at the gravesite of my brother, who was only forty-three. Stephen died one month before I graduated from law school, and I’d had to clamp blinders on my heart to get through his funeral, my thesis, the bar exam, and the start of a new job as a corporate lawyer in California. A year into that new job, Daddy was gone, too.
I learned that grief is a language spoken only by the initiated
Through losing my brother and father when I was relatively young, I learned that grief is a language spoken only by the initiated. And that the loss of a loved one can be compounded by a second anguish—the distance of well-intentioned friends who either don’t want to bring up your loss (lest they “remind” you) or just don’t know quite what to say. In those first few months after Daddy died, I would have given anything for friends who could ask, “How are you holding up? How are you coping? How are you doing today?”
I worked at a law firm in Silicon Valley—a beast that demanded to be fed—but could get little work done. I had a hard time making a to-do list, and couldn’t stick to it when I did manage to make one. I’d come to work and move the piles of paperwork around on my desk. Take a long lunch. Avoid eye contact with partners. My thinking was so cloudy that I searched for a logical explanation: Maybe I partially suffocated myself with my pillow one night. Okay, yeah, that must be it.
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I was actually experiencing a process that was profound and real and normal
Three months after Daddy died, my brother’s widow Marcia called and asked how I was doing. I told her I was fine, but that I just couldn’t get any work done. She said she thought I was grieving, and asked if I’d tried going to grief counseling. (I hadn’t—I thought of myself as the kind of person who didn’t need therapy.) “Go,” my sister-in-law urged. “Better yet, ask Dan to find you a local place.” My husband Dan was likely feeling helpless, she told me. “Let him try to help you.”
Dan found me a drop-in grief counseling group in town and I went, if only to assuage his and Marcia’s concerns. To my surprise, within moments of listening to grieving people talk about their lives, I learned that I had not suffocated myself in bed one night, that I was actually experiencing a process that was profound and real and normal. Listening to others open up to their grief, I no longer felt lonely in this bleak and unfamiliar land. I could finally open up about it myself. I went biweekly until I could begin to think clearly again.
I picture grief as a vat full of tears hidden behind an opaque wall. All we can see on our side of the wall is the spigot. Circumstances loosen the spigot and our tears flow, then we tighten it again to get on with our lives as custom and bosses demand. But things remind us of our loved one—a song, a milestone, a photo, an expanse of sky—and we loosen and tighten, loosen and tighten, over months, years, even decades. None of us know how big the vat is. How vast the grief. We don’t need friends to give a wide berth; we need them to help us loosen the spigot.
Julie Lythcott-Haims is the author of "How to Raise an Adult" and a member of the Lean In Advisory Board, read more about her here.