Though I work with grieving families and loved ones all the time, when that phone call comes to my home, it is still a shock. My husband's aunt, who had multiple sclerosis for almost 30 years, suddenly passed away yesterday, and we got a call from his mother this morning.
My gentle husband has gotten me through many family losses in the last few years, but now the tables were turned. I watch him shake and tremble from the shock, knowing there was little I could do until the wave of emotion passed. My first instinct was to say that I would drive us home, but he wanted to drive - he said it helped focus him and lessen the pain. Lesson One - don't assume....
We got home and he began to call family and see who needed what and piece together what had happened. But this process did not follow a "normal" pattern either - his uncle was having no service, she was being cremated, there were no hasty travel plans or emergency arrangements to be made. Nothing to be done at that moment. Lesson Two - don't assume.....
Then even I, someone who manages grief and teaches this subject professionally, found myself asking, "what do you need?" Of course, my husband had no idea. It kept changing from one minute to the next - so I let him follow what he felt in each moment. You want chinese food? Yes, order chinese. You want to walk to the restaurant and get it? Walk. You want to go by yourself? Go.
The best way I could support him was not imposing what I thought - I just kept making suggestions and watching and being quiet. I had to put my own stuff on hold. We ate and drank more than we should have, and that was fine. He needed distraction, so we watched HBO for a few hours. And when I finally said, "you should get some sleep," he went outside to look at the stars.
In some ways, I was glad we didn't have to drop everything and travel - but not having a funeral or memorial is also challenging. There is no chance for community support, or gathering to tell his aunt's stories. But this is often the case, if we cannot attend a service or circumstances do not allow for an event to take place. He may want to create something over the next days or weeks, I don't know. But whatever he decides will be just fine.
Just because this is one of my career strengths does not mean I make perfect choices or that grief does not touch my family. But I am grateful to be able to support my loved ones when they are hurting. None of this is easy - we are taking a deep breath - and seeing what tomorrow brings. And not assuming.