When a loved one dies, we start death’s dance. This is not a fun dance, nor is it a happy dance. Instead, it is a tension-filled dance that happens on a symbolic high wire, where one misstep could cause us to fall.
For caregivers who may have spent months or years taking care of their loved one before they died, death’s dance is especially grueling and exhausting because they are already so tired, so emotionally spent, and so mentally fragmented.
Whether the death of a loved one is anticipated or not, when they die, your brain produces chemicals that blunt or numb the effect of their death. This is commonly known as the fog of grief. In a sense, you shut down.
This is a protective and automatic response that enables you to get through the initial days after your loved one’s death. These days are filled with making funeral arrangements and handling immediate estate matters. These days are not days when you have the luxury of falling apart.
However, death’s dance starts the moment that others hear about your loved one’s death. While you’re trying to stay focused on what you have to do, you can often be overwhelmed by emails, phone calls, and text messages that are well-meaning, but overwhelming.
When your loved one dies, you don’t know what you need or what kind of help you will require – down the road. So, when people ask “What do you need?” or “How can I help you?,” all you can say is, “I don’t know.”
The hardest question to answer is “How are you?” If you answer “I’m okay,” – even if you’re not, but you can’t put what you are into words – people will take that at face value and go on and never give it another thought. If you say, “I don’t know,” then, often, people will try to rush in to fix you, even though grief can’t be fixed.
Death’s dance at this point is trickiest. You know you are going to need all the offers of help at some point. You just don’t know what you need in the moment.
With most people, if you appear to be pushing them away, they will withdraw and you’ll no longer be able to count on them in the future. Yet, you don’t really mean to be pushing them away forever. It’s just at the beginning that you need some space and time to sort things out so that you can figure out what you need, how they can help, and how you actually are doing.
Death’s dance can add to your grief because you know one wrong move is all it takes.
You can make death’s dance easier for people whose loved ones have died. They will still have to dance, but the danger level is decreased.
Instead of asking grieving people what they need or how you can help, do something practical for them. This could be making a meal and letting them know it’s on the front porch. It could be letting them know you’re going grocery shopping and you would like to pick up grocery items they might need.
You don’t need to ask to help. I remember when Daddy died, one of Mama’s cousins brought his sons with him and mowed the yard. He didn’t ask. He just did. I’ve never forgotten that, because it needed to be done and they saw the need and met it.
There is often the assumption that people who’ve lost a loved one need round-the-clock companionship in the early days. For some people, it’s comforting to be surrounded by people. For other people, though, it may not be.
Everyone grieves differently. The grieving person you want to help may not be grieving the way you grieve. If you want to be there with them and they need space, respect that and don’t assume that they are pushing you away. When they are ready, they will reach out to you. Let them know you’ll be there for them.
Don’t expect immediate answers to phone calls, texts, and emails. In our 24/7 connected world, we have come to believe that everything should happen instantly. If someone doesn’t answer a phone call, a text, or an email, we can assume they don’t care.
This is not true. There are much more important things happening in the immediate days after a loved one dies. Additionally, grieving people may not be up to talking on the phone, via texts, or via email. There’s a lot of emotional and mental upheaval going on when people are grieving and communication can be very difficult.
Caregivers whose loved ones have died are also dealing with physical exhaustion. Caregiving is hard work, and the work gets much harder as a loved one’s life is coming to an end. Caregivers need time to emotionally, mentally, and physically recharge. This is a process that can take time. Be gentle and understanding.
Death’s dance is inevitable, but we can make it easier for our friends and family members by taking a step back and putting ourselves in their shoes.