Dr. Linda E. Jordan
Will Rogers once said, “It’s not what you don’t know that scares me; it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Nowhere is this folk wisdom more applicable than when we try to comfort the grieving. To be sure, no one has ever taught us what to say. We generally parrot what we heard from adults when we were growing up. The difficulty is that most of our statements have some elements of truth in them. However, the message behind the message is not true and is often very hurtful.
The statements I offer for your consideration in this article are those taught to me by grieving people over the last 10 years. I hope they will help you be more sensitive to those you are truly trying to help.
Most Careless Statement # 1: I know how you feel. No one knows how somebody else feels, not even if that one has had a similar loss. The twin of this careless statement is “the same thing happened to…” and then launch into a tragedy that happened to someone else. The sentiment of wanting to identify with the pain of grief is a worthy one, but the fact is such statements most often alienate the grieving person. Each loss and grief is unique to the person who has had the loss. No one knows, not even members of the same family.
Most Careless Statement #2: S/he lived a long life. And your point is? The message behind this statement (although seldom intended) is that the mourner should grieve less because the deceased is old and the mourner has had many years with him/her. But in reality, that longevity adds to the importance of mourning the death. Whether the deceased is a parent or spouse or other significant person (whether the relationship was affectionate or contentious), the fact is that longevity often means deep bonds, and survivors lose, not only their pivotal person, but also a part of their own identity.
Most Careless Statement # 3: Let me know if there’s anything that I can do. A person in grief often has no idea what they need or even how they will get through the next hour. For heaven’s sake, don’t add another chore to the bereaved. In reality, this statement is most often made to make comforters feel better, not the bereaved. If you really want to help, take the initiative. Find out what things might be helpful and ask if you can do them—grocery shopping, babysitting, cutting the lawn, or making a meal.
Most Careless Statement # 4: S/he is in a better place. Well, the dead do not need comforting. They are indeed in a better place. Who is not in a better place are the survivors. They are hurting. Please remember that you are there for those who are left behind. This is only one of a plethora of religious platitudes intended to help the bereaved “buck up.” Others include “everything happens for a reason” and “God doesn’t give us more than we can bear.” Such statements are meaningful if the bereaved make them. It is not OK for comforters to impose these interpretations.
Most Careless Statement # 5: It was a blessing. This effort to comfort survivors generally after a long illness dismisses the intense sorrow of death. Surely death can be accompanied by a sense of release and relief when survivors have had to watch someone they love suffer, but that final letting go hardly feels like a “blessing.” In terminal illness, death steals not only the deceased, but the survivor’s vocation and identity as a primary caregiver. It is one thing for survivors to make this statement; it is an assault for others to make it to them.
Most Careless Statement # 6: You’re holding up so well. What are survivors suppose to be “holding up?” This meaningless praise and its twin admonition, “you’ve go to be strong” are “not so subtle” messages to grievers that we are thankful that they are not making us uncomfortable with their emotional outbursts, especially tears or anger. Often people in grief feel they have to turn in an “academy award” performance every day in order to make others around them feel OK. In addition, they have to endure a multitude of insensitive remarks. There is something fundamentally wrong with grieving people taking care of those not grieving.
Most Careless Statement # 7: At least you still have one parent left (or other children). Variations on this theme are intended to comfort the bereaved by pointing out the supportive persons they have left, but in reality it discredits the uniqueness of the deceased or the power of the loss. Parents, children, siblings, grandparents, friends are not “interchangeable.”
Most Careless Statement # 8: I thought you’d be over this by now. After a defined period of time (usually several months), we expect the grieving person to be “their old selves” again. I was standing in line next to a widow of two years when one of her friends actually said this to her. It is hard to believe, but nonetheless true, that we expect a person to move through grief like a fast food meal. Meaning and fun will return to life, but survivors will continue to miss the deceased in various ways and at certain times for the rest of their lives. The person who needs to “get over it” is the one who expects grief to be a 24-hour virus.
Most Careless Statement # 9: God needed another angel in heaven. This list must include the well-intended but careless statements that we make to children when a death occurs. Think about it. The message we send is that if you are special and good, you will be rewarded by death. Although we don’t mean that literally, it is no surprise that children who think concretely will be confused and afraid and can reasonably opt for alternative behavior. Another euphemism that is often used to explain death to children is “S/he has just gone to sleep.” This statement may even lead to sleep disorder. If this person went to sleep and quit breathing, what will happen to me if I go to sleep? Adults often try to soften the reality of death by using analogies, but children need to know what death is and what happens when a person dies.
Most Careless Statement # 10: You’re the man/woman of the house now. This effort to encourage adult behavior in children can actually burden them to the point of denying them space to grieve. Children innately feel responsible for adults. This is especially true when a parent dies. They are so fearful of losing the remaining parent and often so overwhelmed by the chaos that death incurs that they not only lose a parent to death, they lose their own childhood. Sadly, children are praised for over-functioning. It takes real intention to allow children to be children—encouraging age-appropriate grieving patterns and maintaining age-appropriate behavior.
Now that I have made us all anxious about making our usual but careless statements, I want to provide some general direction for making thoughtful statements. Alison Krauss says it well in her song, “You say it best when you say nothing at all.” If we are lucky, grieving people will not remember what we say. They seldom do unless it is hurtful. What they do remember is our presence. Nothing we can do or say can take away the pain. But there are a couple of things that grieving people always mention as being very helpful:
• Please know I care. This statement makes no assumptions, and when made genuinely, it can be life giving. This means respecting the griever’s need for privacy and maintaining periodic contact in the months to come. This care means that sometimes you sit and listen. This means accepting all emotions, suspending all judgment, and resisting the tendency to give advice or “fix the problem.” Sometimes it means that you do concrete things that you know can be helpful without being smothering or fostering dependence.
• I remember… Over and over again grieving people report how much it means to them to be able to talk about the deceased. They long to hear stories about their loved ones. Your memories about the deceased can really be a comfort and even provide stories that the mourners did not know before. On the other hand, the bereaved need someone to listen to their stories (sometimes two or three times). Never worry about repetition. Each time a story is told, it is serving a purpose for integrating the grief into life. Remembering the deceased on special days can also be a real gift. These memories may bring tears and fresh evidence of grief, but they also promote healing.
Last year, I went back to an area where I had lived 30 years ago. I stayed with a woman whose family had been particularly important to me. Her husband had cancer and died shortly after I left the area. I sat down with her over morning coffee 30 years later and told her a story about him that I had never told her because I didn’t know then what I know now. What an amazing moment!
I believe in amazing moments. I believe that community matters. I believe that sometimes we screw up, but sometimes we are better than we know how to be. I believe that grief provides a major formation of our character. I believe we can and do make a difference. BRAVE JOURNEY!
Dr. Linda E. Jordan is the retired Manager of Duke Community Bereavement Services, Duke HomeCare & Hospice