Great Expectations

In my line of work — I'm the co-founder of the website and online community Modern Loss, which facilitates candid conversation about grief — there's a lot of talk about all the thoughtless things people say to the bereaved. These often involve such phrases as "better place" or "finding closure" or questions that seem to implicate the deceased or their family: "Was she a smoker? ... Was he wearing a seatbelt? ... Had you known so-and-so was depressed?" Hurtful? Totally. Said with malice? Not usually. More often, it's because people don't know what to say, because it's really hard to know what to say. 

But in the aftermath of my father and stepmother's murders in 2004, two people in my life managed to say the right things. One friend told me: "Don't expect too much from yourself," urging me, in the immediate aftermath of my loss, to go easy on myself and to take comfort in small victories, like getting out of bed and brushing my teeth when facing the day felt Sisyphean. The other piece of advice was from my father's mother, who was grieving in her own right. She told me: "Don't expect too little from yourself." I need not let this tragedy define or derail me, she explained.

These seemingly paradoxical but actually complementary pieces of advice sustained me. They gave me permission to keep my foot on the pedal when I wanted to (like pursuing an ambitious assignment or taking a new job) and to ease up on it when I needed to (like backing out of weekend plans or taking a personal day when my grief felt overwhelming). I am forever grateful that at a time when people say the craziest stuff, a friend and a grandmother knew better. 

By Gabrielle Birkner