I Don’t Know How to Respond to That - Grief and Loss in Western Society

Updated: Mar 5

The day I wrote this blog I woke up to a text from the woman who runs my daughter’s daycare. This is a small, in-home day and afterschool program with less than 15 kids. Itsy Bitsy is friends with everyone at the daycare and while Fat Papa and I might not know the parents, we certainly feel connected to each family from what we hear about their kids from Itsy Bitsy. So, the text this morning hit me hard.

The daycare informed families, this small group of people all connected to one another by our children, that one family was about to experience a tragic loss. One of the kids, who Itsy Bitsy plays with regularly and talks about all the time, is losing a parent to cancer. Doctors expect the battle to be lost within the next 48-hrs. So, by the time you are reading this post ...


The daycare has suggested not only that we talk to our kids about grief and loss but that we also, as a community, join together and donate gift cards, money, or beneficial items to help this soon to be grieving family. As I am writing this, my phone is blowing up with texts from other parents on our community message group. Everyone wants to offer their love and support, but everyone also seems at a loss.


After all, how in the ducking wide world do you respond to something like this?

I mean … I don’t know these people. I have never met the kid. I couldn’t pick the family out in a crowd. Sure, our kids attend the same daycare, but really, we are strangers. I don’t know how to respond in this situation.

So, I find myself laughing ... at myself. That is why I have placed this morbid, grief-filled post in "Learning to Laugh." There is nothing funny, at all, about the tragedy this family is going through, but it is funny how ill-equipped I feel to deal with something as commonplace as death. It is funny how poorly modern western society deals with grief despite it being an emotion we all experience.


I've learned to laugh at myself when I feel uncomfortable. When I don't know how to respond to something, laughing at myself and asking, "Why do I feel this way," somehow helps. So, lets all laugh at ourselves, and with one another, while we confront this uncomfortable topic, community grief and embracing our own mortality. Perhaps our laughter can help break through the tears.


Grief and the Community


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I don’t want to offer my support, emotionally or monetarily. And again, there is nothing funny about this situation. What I am saying is I LITERALLY do not know how to respond to this. So, I responded how all the other parents are responding. I texted back some platitudes about grief, loss, and support coupled with sad and heart emojis. Ha, as if that is any comfort to anyone.

Wow, does that response feel inadequate. I mean, that isn’t going to be all I do, just some words and symbols. I’ve already ordered a couple kids' coloring and journaling books on grief and loss, but wow, that also feels so … so … so … again, I don’t know how to respond to this. I'm having a hard time finding the words to express my own feelings over another family's loss.


If the tables were turned, I’m trying to think how I would want people to respond. But then, I am not most people so maybe what I would want is not relevant. I’ve asked for more specifics on what the family would like for support, and if the family knows the daycare is telling us what is going on in their life right now but the response is so basic. "Gift cards are always easy and nice to have on hand."


I feel like the way I get myself through confronting my own mortality is to laugh. Laugh at the absurdity of how ill-prepared I feel for this. Laugh at how I am blowing this way out of proportion. Laugh at how I overanalyze every social situation, even ones like this. Laugh at how my anxiety and unease is being channeled into some form of action.


If this was me and I was about to lose Fat Papa, I’m not sure what kind of community support I would want. But texts filled with emojis certainly would not help. I want to be helpful because that is how I deal with every problem; I try to be of service. Then I laugh at myself for assuming that I can help in every situation. But how can we who are part of a community of strangers provide support to one another? Are gift cards really the answer?

I cannot imagine what this family is dealing with right now and I wish we knew more about their situation. Do they have other family who live in the area? Are they strapped for cash? What kind of emotional support is in place? But these are not really questions you ask someone who is actively grieving, whose first name you don’t even know. This is no laughing matter.


Yet, because of our kids, we are part of a community. We are part of a small community of less than 15 families who don’t really know each other. This small group of families should absolutely help support one another in times of need, crisis, and grief. But wow, I do not know how to respond to this. I don’t know how I would want people to respond if I was in this family’s shoes.


There Are Not Enough Curse Words in the English Language to Express My Discomfort


This ducking quacks. I long for community so much, and often it seems like crisis is what brings community closer together. But grief, loss, pain … when it is not felt by the whole community, it feels like it drives a deeper wedge rather than building a bridge. We as a society do not deal well with grief and loss. Especially not when the grief and loss is “unacceptable.” The loss of a young child’s parent is unacceptable, whereas the death of a grandparent, even if sudden, is expected and relatable.


Even writing this post I feel bad. This post, though yes, it is on my blog and this blog focuses on my thoughts, feelings, and innermost demons, feels so self-centered at a time when someone else is suffering. In a way, writing this post, while helping me parse out my thoughts and feelings on grieving and loss in a community, also feels so incredibly overindulgent and egocentric.

From a modern western civilization point of view, it makes sense why I have no idea how to respond to this situation and why it makes me feel so uncomfortable. Our society does not train us how to deal with grief and loss. On the whole, modern western civilization has done a good job at breaking down communities, alienating individuals from one another, and isolating each of us within our own world of pain and self-doubting.


Even for those of us who have experienced loss or tragedy, we don’t really know how to cope with those feelings. Most people either repress the feelings or have to seek professional help. Which, when you think about it seems ridiculous. Seeking professional help is great, I highly recommend it, but why isn't this already part of our emotional arsenals?

Gigi, who has experienced much more loss in her lifetime than I have, reminds me that we can never really be ready for this kind of loss, The grief that comes with the death of a young child's parent is tremendous and reminds us all how fragile life is. It reminds every one of us that we are mortal and have only a finite amount of time. No one can really prepare for that!


After all, every single one of us will, does, is dealing with loss. At some point in your life, someone close to you is going to die. It is a universal human experience. Yet, we as individuals and communities, do not really know how to respond. We feel so much discomfort around grief, loss, and death. It is this discomfort that causes me to laugh, trying to shake the unwelcome feelings, and leads to me seek out things I can do to proactively deal with such feelings.


The Lengths We Go To...


Why don’t we know how to respond to grief and loss? I think it is part of our coping mechanism. It’s not a good coping mechanism, but people will go to crazy lengths to avoid anything painful. The same goes for loss and grief. I mean, can you think of anything more painful than losing a spouse or child?

In so many ways, it feels like we are hardwired to avoid people who are suffering from grief and tragic loses. Despite the fact that every fiber in my being tells me I should be running to support someone in pain rather than running to hide from my own feelings that their pain brings up in me. It all feels oxymoronic.


I’m sure any good mental health professional would spout off something about human nature and not wanting to confront our own mortality, but is that really what is at the root of me not knowing how to respond to this situation? Is that the root of laughing through my discomfort? We don’t teach our children to deal with grief and loss because we can’t confront our own fragile existence and inevitable end? Do other cultures handle this topic better?


Death, grief, loss; it’s all inevitable. These are all things I have and will continue to experience throughout my life. Why then am I so unwilling to confront the inevitable? Trusts, wills, and funeral arrangements are perfect examples.


Confronting Our Own Fragility


Fat Papa and I recently have been working on creating a living trust for Itsy Bitsy. Not that she is going to be a trust fund kid … we don’t have that kind of money … we just want to make sure that if something happens to us, people in our life know who we want caring for her and how we want her assets managed. Yet getting this done has been so difficult. That is to say, Fat Papa and I were sitting on the draft paperwork for more than 3 months with the Estate Planning attorney poking us via email every couple of weeks.


We knew we wanted to set up the trust, we knew exactly what we wanted it to say, and the terms … everything was ready to go. We just needed to review and sign. Yet it took us more than 3 months to do so. Why? I don’t know. It just isn’t comfortable thinking about death. Yet, it's inevitable, and those who don’t plan for it leave even greater grief and pain for their loved ones.


Why can’t we as a society even approach grief and loss from that perspective? Don’t be a useless bag of bones when you die, get your quack in order for your ducklings when you pass. I mean, I know insurance, funeral, and estate planning industries use this approach, but why is this not a broader societal mantra?


We should teach our kids to treat others the way you want to be treated, love your neighbor, and get your ducks in a row before you die. It seems like addressing this responsibility from a young age might make it less taboo. Maybe it would even lessen peoples' grief a bit ... who knows. But what we are doing right now isn't working.


Planning for the Inevitable


Are we really so afraid of death that we are completely incapable of planning for this predictable outcome? I have lost both of my grandmothers, one to a slow disease and one to sudden death in her sleep.


One was not open with her children about her final wishes, causing permanent rifts in our family when Pappy, her executor, tried to carry out her last requests, against the wishes of one of his siblings. Gigi's mother, on the other hand, not only spoke regularly to Gigi and Fabby about her final wishes, she also pre-arranged and paid for all her final memorial arrangements. When she passed suddenly, Gigi and Fabby, literally, just called a phone number taped to the refrigerator by grandma, and everything was taken care of for our family.

Original artwork by my cousin Dani DeSantes memorializing our grandmother's ashes scattered at sea (July 2014)

Both of my grandmothers were grieved by their children and grandchildren. Both my grandmothers are missed terribly. We feel the loss of them at every family event. But, the pain and anguish caused by lack of communication and openness caused additional wounds that have not healed and go far deeper than grief.

My Nana Fay's memorial service, none of us know what exactly to do with our faces (Feb. 2007)

So as I examine my own feelings of uselessness and fear and bewilderment and desire to help this grieving family in our daycare community, I am also reflecting on how I can make things easier in the future when I must grieve or those around me experience loss. So here it goes … this is how I am responding to grief and loss … I hope this helps you as much as it is helping me.


Things I can do to help those who will someday grieve for me …

1. Work with an Estate Planner or Trust Attorney to make all my final wishes known before anything happens to me. Or, at the very least, create a notarized document with all this information. This should include (but isn’t limited to):

a. Who will take care of my non-adult children?

b. Who will manage my estate until my non-adult children come of age? And

what age will that be? 18? 25? 32?

c. Who do I want making medical and legal decisions for me in the case of

incapacitation?

d. Who gets what from my estate?


2. Make sure I have the proper insurance and arrangements in place to cover end-of-life and death expenses. This is difficult, I know. I don't know when I am going to die, therefore, who knows what kinds of end-of-life expenses I will have and need? I recommend working with a financial planner for this one. Fat Papa and I really like our guy Jerome Burton. Here are a few things we have considered and are looking into while we still can:

a. Make and pay for funeral, services, burial and/or cremation before I am too

old. However I want my mortal form to be disposed or honored or

enshrined, I need to make arrangements before I die so my loved ones don’t

have to make these decisions.

b. I need to find a retirement, rehabilitation, and/or memory care facility that I like

and feel comfortable with before I need one. This way, when the time comes, I

know I have a place to go that I have chosen. After all, let’s be real, most

of us are not going to be able to stay in our own homes or move in with adult

children.

c. I know it is expensive and I know it is a pain, but insurance saves lives,

especially the lives of survivors. From death benefits to in-home care to Long-

Term Care insurance to health insurance … I need to get the best plans I can, as

young as I can, to ensure my surviving relatives are not left with the added

anguish of trying to do right by me and paying their own bills.


3. I need to watch the way people around me handle the deaths of loved ones. What

problems or obstacles did they have to deal with along with their grief? I'll make

note of these and do my best to address those issues in my own life so they do not

become burdens on my loved survivors.


Things I can do for those around me who are grieving …

While not everyone wants people all up in their business, I think most of us appreciate when people around us make an effort. Grief and loss are hard for anyone to deal with, even those who are only tangentially touched by it through community connections. However, there are a few things support networks can do that just about everyone appreciates; simply customize these to fit your specific situation.

1. Start a meal and grocery chain. It doesn’t matter how much or how little someone is

impacted financially by the death of a loved one, cooking and meal prep suddenly

becomes impossible. If you are part of a community or network offering support to

someone who is suffering, helping out with meals can be a huge relief.