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How Not to Support Someone Grieving

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The 12th anniversary of my father’s death just passed. Every year up until the 10th felt significant, but by 12, he seems more like just a distant memory. I was in a relationship with a man at the time of his death, but I would have been better off had I been single.

When my dad developed leukemia, I called my boyfriend shaken and helpless. He was surprised and supportive, assuring me that everything was going to be alright. After I announced the sad news on social media, he joined in the thread of comments with the words “I’ll be praying for you. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

During the first week of my father’s diagnosis, my father adjusted to a new lifestyle of frequent visits to hospitals and clinics each day to have his blood tested. I recall driving him on many of the trips. He joked that he would eventually shave his head and I could call him “Daddy Warbucks.”

He spent the remaining three weeks of his life at a hospital.

After that first week of living a cancer-led lifestyle, he spent one evening limping around his house and howling in intense pain. My mother called an ambulance the following morning. He was taken away, and I was told that I wasn’t allowed to visit him during my semester of graduate school. He didn’t want me to take time away from my studies.

I called my boyfriend to let him know that my father’s poor health escalated, and although he was surprised that he was under a hospital’s care at this point, he assured me he would be alright.

As my father’s last days continued at the hospital, I stayed housebound, researching for a major presentation and feeling helpless over my father’s condition. A family friend dropped off a giant container of cookies to offer condolences. Because I was unmotivated to cook, I recall being fueled by coffee, cookies and beer while piecing my project together. My boyfriend suggested I slip away and attend a movie with him. There was no such time for that.

I received a phone call in the middle of the night. The hospital alerted my mother that my father’s current condition required emergency surgery—one that could potentially kill him. However, he could possibly die if he didn’t have the surgery. The medical staff wanted my mother and me to weigh in our consideration.

I sobbed. I don’t remember my mother and I giving the hospital an answer right away, but I did call my boyfriend. I pleaded that he come sit by my side and hold my hand during this scary point of limbo. He sounded tired over the phone and recounted his time spent with his teenage daughter who was in town at the moment. They attended an air show that day, and his feet were sore from walking around so much.

“I know it’s a lot to ask,” I began before I felt myself trail off.

“It is,” he agreed as I felt my stomach drop.

“Your dad is going to be just fine.  You have to have faith.”

“Well, I do have faith,” I protested. “It’s just a very terrible time right now.”

“You don’t sound so sure,” he said accusingly.

I felt angry that not only did he not agree to join and comfort me, but he ridiculed my own personal faith. We ended the phone call with his reassurance of my dad’s health and my eventual agreement with him. I hung up the phone slowly and felt a pang of emptiness.

I received another phone call and learned that my father was no longer in need of this life-saving/ending surgery. The next day I told my boyfriend that he really should have driven the hour-long commute to sit with me that night. He quietly agreed.

While balancing schoolwork, updating extended family members on my dad’s health in emails and remembering to breathe, I decided to stop calling my boyfriend. I wasn’t receiving much in the way of support from him, and each conversation I had with him only added to my disappointment. He could call me, instead. After a few days, I received a text from him saying “hi. It seems that we aren’t talking anymore. I just want to let you know that I’m thinking about you and praying for you.”

After my father’s second week of staying in the hospital, my semester of graduate school ended and I was able to visit.  When I went to the wing of the hospital where my father resided, I approached the nurse’s station to ask where he was. After I gave his name, a healthcare worker said over his shoulder and with a smile “she’s here to see the feisty one 2713.”

I lowered my eyes at him.

“Why is my father ‘the feisty one’?” I asked.

“Oh, he has been giving the nurses a bit of grief,” he stammered while avoiding my eyes.

“My father is a minister,” I said flatly before I took off for his room.

I entered the room and couldn’t believe my eyes. My father was thrashing from side to side in his bed. My mom was there and explained to me that his behavior change was due to his heavy medications. She also told me that he wasn’t allowed any food or drink.

He saw me—a familiar face—and said “we want water.”

“I’m sorry, Dad, I can’t give you any,” I said apologetically. He rolled his eyes dramatically and grumbled.

That night, I desperately called my boyfriend to unload. He listened with mild interest rather than concern.

“Hmm. We want water,” was all that he could respond.

The next few nights, I called him again with more updates. I told him that my dad ripped his pic line out of his body and threatened to punch one of the nurses. I told him that the staff had to bind mitts over his hands. Then, I heard my boyfriend flirtatiously say “I’m naked underneath my bed sheets.”

I ignored him and told him that my dad begged me for water again, only this time he called it “soothing Walgreens.”

I could hear my boyfriend angrily sigh over the phone. “I told you that I was naked under my sheets, and you didn’t even respond to that,” he confronted.

“No, I didn’t,” I said. “I thought that was incredibly inappropriate of you to bring up while I was pouring my heart out to you over my sick father, so I chose to ignore you.”

“Oh. Sorry,” he hissed through his clenched jaw.

The next morning, Thursday, my mom discovered that her car’s battery was dead. My boyfriend offered to fix it but blew me off to mow his lawn instead.

My father passed on Saturday.

After I left the hospital, clutching bags of his belongings and sobbing, I returned home and called my boyfriend. I told him about my uncles and grandmother who gathered around his bed, the resident nun who offered her blessings, and his cleanly shaven head. I shared my explosion of emotions after the nurse uttered “he is gone.”

I fell silent, and my usually quiet boyfriend spoke up. He told me all about the sandals he found on sale that morning on a successful shopping trip. I stopped listening as he nervously filled the air with his rambling. There wasn’t anything he could say that mattered.

I saw my boyfriend  sitting in the back row at my dad’s funeral. He later told me that he was a half-hour late because he couldn’t find parking. He also mentioned that it tore him up inside to see me escorted by my best guy friend. “It should have been you!” I nearly shouted.

At the reception, he pulled me aside and said he wanted me to alert him when I was ready to leave so he could leave with me. It seemed important to him. I nodded in agreement. He mingled with the other guests, and I did as well in a haze. When it was time, I got his attention and we walked out to the parking lot together. As I climbed into a car with a couple of girlfriends, he said “call me,” over his shoulder as he walked away. One of my girlfriends burst into laughter.

“That’s so not the correct thing to say,” she said, shaking her head. “What he should have said was ‘I will be calling you later to be checking in on you.’”

I sat in the car thinking over her words, and they filled me with warmth. The idea of him checking in on me was wonderful and what I really needed. Though he completely botched his role of being an attentive boyfriend, I was grateful that my friends rose to the occasion in helping me heal.

Rather than end our relationship, my boyfriend just went ahead and got a new girlfriend. When friends would talk to me and ask how I was doing, I would vent my anger and frustrations with my boyfriend. I could practically feel heat leave my ears as I would unload on them. I would detect mild confusion, concern and sadness in their faces in response to my woes. I’m certain that they intended to hear about my reaction to my dad’s death, instead.

Sure, I had my moments where I’d cry and mourn my father’s death. But my anger towards my boyfriend took dominance over my mind. In truth, dealing with my anger towards my boyfriend was easier and more satisfying. It was also short-lived. I was angry over him until I grew tired of it.

Then, I had to deal with real, life-changing loss. After I got rid of all of the poison in my mind, I focused on my grief. I felt empty and so beside myself. The loss that I felt was huge, and my boyfriend’s behavior was merely a distraction from it. My body tried to be good to me in breaking my grief up into smaller pieces that I would deal with from time to time.

In between my moments of tears, I would feel gratitude toward my friends and family who showed me love and concern. I received so many cards in the mail and prepared meals. People from different phases of my life would reach out to me. The act of checking in was valuable. I was so grateful and vowed to pay it forward. It taught me to be a better friend.

I learned how necessary it is to have support from loved ones in healing. The expectation should be that the concerned partner regularly hand-holds and checks in on their loved one as a primary source of stability.  Never should a grieving, attached individual go through an experience like mine.

Getty image by Anna Bezrukova

Originally published: October 11, 2021
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