How to Help A Grieving Friend (Part 2)

My conversation with Katherine Conway, founder of Helping Friends Grieve continues…

4. You study and work in the field of transitional justice. In traveling the world and working with communities around mourning, memory, memorialization and loss, what are some of the biggest lessons that have come your way?

I learned the most important lesson of my work in northern Uganda. On this particular research trip, I learned that my personal and professional lives are not separate. I had an older woman look me in the eyes and say that it was clear that I’d lost someone. She could see it in my eyes. This connection of loss across culture and time bonded us. My loss, while different and separate from my work, allows me to empathize and really hear the stories of others. While my father was not killed by another human and was not persecuted for his ethnic origin, I found that I could relate to Rwandans who want to remember, or Ugandans who want to tell their story. I understand the desire to continue to remember a part of your ongoing life, which is where memory and memorialization are intertwined.

5. I found an interesting picture on your website with the caption “Mourning becomes a moment of celebration during Dia de los Muertos each year in Mexico when families gather to celebrate the dead through placing food and drink on their gravesites.” In your travels and witnessing of grief around cultures, what have you learned about the process of grieving?

In the past 8 years, I have learned that the processes of grief and mourning vary widely. My experiences have mostly varied around the comfort level of people in discussing grief and healing. I found a home, in many ways, in Mexico, but one of the most meaningful elements of the culture is a comfort with death and in a way, a comfort with the ongoing celebration of someone even after they have died. I watched families celebrate loved ones by bringing food, drink and music to the graveyard to celebrate the Day of the Dead. The process of creating a space to celebrate and be present with the dead was moving.

6. Social media dominates how we live, relate and even mourn. How is grief experienced, communicated and  shared in a tech age? What are some of the negatives and positives of this trend?

This is a big question because of the constantly changing nature of social media. Facebook, in particular, creates a space for communication, yet the norms of what is communicated in this space may be limiting. On a personal level, I often feel anxiety over writing FB posts about my father–noting the years that have passed since he died or his birthday. I feel nervous that this may make people uncomfortable or, like they need to respond. Yet social media dominates much of our communication. It makes me nervous that so much of the writing is positive or perfectly framed photos of our happiness. Our real lives have hurdles, low points and blissful moments. I am striving to capture a fuller range of emotions on FB. My hope is that a part of this process is touching on grief, healing, memory, and many other topics through these mediums. On a community and international level, social media is opening spaces for people to express more opinions, and has played a role in government shifts such as those seen in the Arab Spring (and ongoing). Additionally, the increased level of communication may create more space for understanding and reconciliation as populations have more access to each other.

7. You say “Reclamation is a powerful part of my healing process.” How can we reclaim spaces that have been marred by grief? For example, the spaces our loved ones inhabited, where we made memories but also where they left us.

Reclamation is powerful. I have been a part of the process of reclaiming on my own i.e. returning to skiing, as well as with my family through returning to places that were too painful in the years immediately following my father’s death. The process of returning to places and creating new memories has been very important.  My father loved the cabin he built outside of Boulder, Colorado. He spent a lot of time there. Every detail of the cabin reminds me of him. Yet, this is a space I can learn to love without him and I can create new memories. This summer, I spread some of his ashes there. Now he will continue to be present, while at the same time new communities and relationships can form in the beautiful space.

8. Tell us about your column on Loss and how people can find you.

In addition to Helping Friends Grieve, I write a column for the Equals Record titled “Of Memory And Loss.” You can find it at the following link. https://equals.youplusme.com/author/katherine I am always looking for people’s stories, so please get in touch if you would like to share your own story of loss or stories of supporting someone through a loss.

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