Babs

Beatrice ‘Babs’ Saunders and great-great-nephew Ellsworth Saunders Huling were 95 years apart in age.

The unexpected passing of former Secretary of State Colin Powell on Monday gave me pause. It coincided with the interment of my great-Auntie Babs, who, like Powell, recently passed away from complications due to COVID-19, at age 103.

Born the year of the Spanish flu, Babs lived a long life as a university librarian, was unwed and had no children. She inspired the idea of Friends of the Library, a fundraising committee that survives to this day at her alma mater and former employer. During the peak of this pandemic, she carried on, cocooned in her senior apartment, only to succumb to the disease after being vaccinated.

Powell and my great-aunt were vulnerable due to poor health and age, respectively, but their deaths were a reminder to continue to take precautions, especially with winter coming.

The topic of death and dying has been front and center for me this autumn. I’ve written or edited three obituaries; friends and family have all experienced sudden loss; and the further into the pandemic we are, the likelihood of knowing someone who has been affected by COVID-19 increases.

I’ve covered this before, but these recent life transitions left me in need of a refresher on how to navigate what is a very difficult and painful period for many.

• Talking about the imminent or recent passing of a loved one is a sensitive but not necessarily improper conversation. It is a beautiful thing when families find a comfort level in discussing it because, if left unspoken, it is the elephant in the room. Which brings to mind the topic of planning. What would happen if the primary caregiver passed? Who holds the insurance policy for the family? Is there an advance directive, living will and will? Do you have a plan and can you even talk about one with your family? You don’t want to dwell in fear, but it’s smart to have a conversation or have something in writing to offer guidance and soften the blow should something happen.

• Whether in close or casual relations, being a good listener is the first thing you can do to be supportive in these circumstances. You don’t need answers or to know how to solve the problem. The person sharing their news may just need to release. Be empathetic and choose your words thoughtfully. Start out with, “I’m sorry. This must be difficult for you.” Be approachable but not casual with fallbacks like, “You’ll be fine” and “I know how you feel.”

• Offer support by asking, “How can I help?” or “Tell me what you need” to elicit an immediate and specific response, versus, “Let me know if I can do anything,” which is too open-ended for someone who doesn’t want to be a burden and has a lot on their mind.

• One may not need more casseroles for the overflowing freezer but someone to walk the dog with, chat over coffee or to simply sit with in silence. And, speaking of talking, find the most effective communication method. Since death and dying span generations, whether to pick up the phone or send an email or a card is dictated by the age of the recipient. There’s no harm in doing all of the above at different times, but investigate how best to get your message through. A simple one-liner such as, “I’m holding space for you today” or sharing a story about the dying or deceased person shows care and thought that lift the spirits of those facing a sad situation. I recommend reaching out during the chaos and after — especially long after, when things have settled and routines are resumed.

• After losing a loved one, the next birthday or holiday — Mother’s or Father’s Day, for example — makes a loss feel more pronounced. Traditions and rituals are upside down, and comparisons to the past are highlighted. I recommend making note of these key dates on your calendar, along with the anniversary date of one’s passing, which fade from our memories but not for those left behind.

• Plan activities to keep an emotional friend busy but not overwhelmed. For the person who is on every invite list, he or she may benefit more from solitude than socializing. For the more introverted friend, a walk in the park or a one-on-one lunch date may be a comfortable way to get out of the house. COVID-19 has made gathering tricky, so find alternate ways to connect if in-person visits aren’t an option. The important thing is to recognize boundaries and what will promote a comforting experience sprinkled with some healthy distraction.

• Those with a deceased loved one may honor their memory through ceremonies or rituals. New traditions like making a contribution to charity, going on a hike or visiting the grave may bring comfort. Creating an ofrenda or altar during Day of the Dead honors loved ones who are believed to awake from their eternal sleep to celebrate and feast with family. It’s an uplifting way to connect with the departed.

• As a supportive friend, it is important to balance your emotional bandwidth with your abilities to absorb them. Everyone expresses grief in their own way and some more taxing than others.

• Laughing through grief may seem antithetical, but the healing benefits help ease the pain. While some may find it objectionable or mistake humor as a sign that one is deflecting, it’s a coping mechanism that can keep the bereaved afloat, focused and functioning. A moment of laughter is a wonderful respite. Lighten the mood by sharing humorous stories with those who might need a boost. And respect those in the deep funk. Grief knows no timeline, and what seems like a well-intended push can feel like a shove for those who process in a more emotional way.

On a recent trip, I was not permitted to visit Babs, as she was allowed only one dedicated visitor along with her caregivers. Sadly, she passed a few days after I flew home, and I will attend her memorial service online because our families are not traveling or gathering in large groups.

Last week, I received the Zoom invitation and order of service via email. In the same moment, my daughter presented me with her collection of books, a red balloon and cookie from her weekly visit to our local library. I found it quite auspicious and cathartic that the cookie’s sticker read “Friends of the Santa Fe Public Library.” Even in death, I am filled with only sweet remembrances.

Bizia Greene is an etiquette expert and owns the Etiquette School of Santa Fe. Share your comments and conundrums at hello@etiquettesantafe.com or 505-988-2070.

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