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Comfort Me With Gestures, Not Words

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Widow: The doctor records the time, declares your husband dead and, instantly, you are no longer a wife, but a widow.

And you are thrust into all the arrangements that have to be made after a death; surrounded by people; moving one foot in front of the other through the public mourning, awash in paper work and unimaginable questions like "How many death certificates will you need?"

And then, and then. When I wrote in my last blog that I disliked euphemisms just as "passed", or "lost" rather than dead; and that I could not bear the word closure, some readers thought that I was criticizing individuals who might come to me and offer comfort using those words. That was not my intent. Tell me that you are sorry that I lost my husband or say how sad you were to hear that he has passed, and I will say "Thank you", and mean it. I will accept that this is the way you express your sympathy and I will hear your words with my heart.

I was railing instead at a society that thinks of sadness and tears as an aberration that should be treated with a pill or a visit to a therapist, and a culture that cannot accept death as part of the cycle of life. Of course, most of us are not sure what to say to someone when they have lost a loved one. How could we be when we use words to deny the reality of the end of life?

How should we comfort the bereaved? Toronto writer Jane O'Hara reminded me of an interview Toni Morrison gave to Emma Brockes in The Guardian. Discussing the death of her son, Morrison said:

"What do you say? There are really no words for that. There really aren't. Some people say, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. People say that to me. There's no language for it. Sorry doesn't do it. I think you should just hug people and mop their floor or something."

I can only say what works for me. What comforts me may well alienate someone else. But I will take hugs, absolutely. I can't get enough of them. And practical help. You don't have to mop my floor but please don't say, "Let me know if there is anything I can do", because I am never going to let you know. But bring me a casserole sized for one. Drop off some bagels. Make sure I am eating, because I am not. That first stab at shopping for one; cooking for one; sitting at the table where he sat across from me for so many years, now by myself: I still haven't been able to do that, and the idea is so upsetting, that I'd rather not eat. But if you drop by, bring a sandwich, sit with me, you will help me get over that hurdle.

I don't want to go to a noisy restaurant, to have to get dressed up. But ask me to your home, with just people who knew my husband, let me talk about him, make it casual and cosy. Don't be offended if I have to leave early. I am exhausted, and fatigue hits me suddenly like a moving train. Don't be offended if I make a date and then cancel. Don't be offended, period.

Be the friend who volunteered to address the envelopes to the many letters I will now write. Offer to take the dog for a walk. Come watch Downton Abbey with me. Bring the scotch. Tell me you are going shopping and ask if there is anything that I need. Help fill the silence of my life with a phone call, an offer to bring over a movie.

Be there when the others have gone because most of the people who surrounded me in the first week are back at their own lives. I am touched by the friend who waited for three weeks to get in touch with me because she knew that there would be fewer people around then. Be patient with me. There will be days -- there are -- when I don't want to talk or see anyone -- but the next day I am restlessly searching for comfort. Do not be upset with me if don't answer your call right away. I will, in time. Don't be embarrassed if I cry. Don't get bored with my sorrow. My grief is not a two week, or three week wonder. It is unpredictable -- a song, a bench, a man hearing a fedora -- any of those things can make me suddenly cry. And my guess is that will go on for some time.

Above all, talk to me, or write to me about my beloved. Make him live for me. Tell me how you knew him, what you learned from him, what you shared with him. We could have long debates about whether there is an afterlife or not, and if so, what form it would take. But we can surely agree that we all live on in the lives we touched on earth.

Tell me how my husband's life touched yours. Fortunately, I have received many letters like that, and they bring me joy. I read them with pleasure, often several times, take my time with them, and will answer them, each and everyone, a few at a time, day after day and preserve them for family members to also read. Don't be afraid to tell me something funny about my husband. Humour was a great bond between us and I love it when people share an amusing story about him. He would like to know that from beyond the grave, he can still make me smile.

Please do not disappear from my life. I know there are people who cannot deal with illness or death, because it reminds them of their own mortality. I feel sorry for them. They don't stay away because they are more sensitive than the rest of us -- it is because they are afraid and because of that fear, they cut themselves off from an important chapter of what makes us human. They have yet to learn that you can only truly experience life when you accept that death is part of it. Until then, you are living on the surface.

Others disappear because "they don't know what to say." To that, I say, say anything. Or say nothing. Bring a hug. Send an email asking "How are you?"

Just be there. Your continuing presence in my life is the tribute you pay to my husband, to your history with him, to our marriage and to the friendship I share with you. And words be damned, the friendship is what matters.

As to society, and our culture, I will continue to rail, in the hope that some small voice may be joined by many other small voices to bring about a change, so the day might come when we accept aging, not as "the new fifty" -- what nonsense!, but as the glory it is for itself -- when we enrich our every day, say what needs to be said, stand in awe at the wonder of our world -- all the more -- because we know our time on earth is limited.