Educating Merna

A few excruciating days after my four-year-old son Daniel died, I got a phone call from Merna, an elderly woman in our church.  “Just think,” she said,  “God needed another flower in his garden and he chose Daniel.”

I felt something sour in the pit of my stomach and my swollen eyes widened in disbelief.  Too numb to say a word, I let her continue, telling me I’d be fine and to carry on with my life and family.

By the time I got off the phone, anger had risen within me.

“God needed another flower!” a fellow-bereaved mother spat out when I conveyed my conversation with Merna.  “Did you let this woman know how blasphemous that sounds?  As though God is greedy and takes.  That is not the nature of God.”

Little did I realize at that critical time during the early months of my bereavement journey that part of being bereaved is having to deal with those who want to console but are basically clueless.  I’ve had to learn that I need to guide them in knowing what is appropriate and what is not.  I’ve had to help those who want to comfort me understand just how to go about doing it.  It’s like having a broken leg and being called in to teach the doctor how to fix it.  Isn’t he supposed to know what to do?  Likewise, aren’t others supposed to know how to soothe the bereaved person’s wounds and what to say and what not to say?

Occasionally a newly-bereaved parent, spouse or sibling may encounter a person who knows that saying, “I’m so sorry” is really about all that can be said.  There is no magic formula of words that make the pain of grief go away.

But people still try.  It seems that everyone has an answer to our pain. “Don’t dwell on the death.  Don’t think about it,” many will say.  However when they are faced with the agony of loss, suddenly their advice does not work, not even for them.  I’ve even heard psychologists and grief counselors say that the advice they’d once given was immensely lacking and did not work when they suffered their own loss.

My friend Jan’s father died a few months ago.  She has already planned not to attend church this Father’s Day, her first one without her dad.  I tell her this is understandable.  Her mother and siblings don’t agree with me.  “Daddy would want you to go to church on Father’s Day,” they insist.  Jan feels it will be too painful to go to church on this day without him.  Finally she tells her family, “I’ll decide what to do when I wake up that morning.”

Grief is unique, as unique as the relationship we held with the loved one who has died.  My middle-aged friend, Kathi, says people look at her funny when she breaks down in tears over the breast cancer death of her aunt.  “She was more than an aunt,” explains Kathi.  “She was a mother to me.”

Many tell us that time heals our wounds.  But then I turn to the words of fellow-bereaved parent, Henry Nouwen, and wonder if this is only another myth we’ve created.

Nouwen writes:  “Real grief is not healed by time…  If time does anything, it deepens
our grief.  The longer we live, the more fully we become aware of who he/she was for us, and the more intimately we experience what their love meant to us.  Real, deep love is, as you know, very unobtrusive, seemingly easy and obvious, and so present that we take it for granted.  Therefore, it is often only in retrospect–or better, in memory–that we can fully realize its power and depth.  Yes, indeed, love often makes itself visible in pain.”

I’ve lost contact with Merna over these five years.  But since then I have had plenty of her types enter my life.  One changed the subject when I told her about losing Daniel.  Being the stubborn person I am, I gently brought the conversation back to him.  I liked this woman, a co-worker of my husband’s, and was certain she could do better about handling my grief than changing the topic to her pet dog.  I continued to talk about Daniel and how it is without him.  She was touched by the things I do in his memory.  By the end of our talk, she was asking questions about what he had been like.  There were tears in her eyes.  I felt I had given her permission to show her empathetic side.

Yes, I’m all for educating the Mernas of our society.  I even hope that someone, somewhere has been educating her.  Perhaps she’ll call one day and ask how I am.  And when the topic comes to Daniel, maybe she will let me talk about how much I miss living without my blond-haired, blue-eyed son.  I can always hope.

By Alice J. Wisler

Copyright 2002

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Alice J. Wisler, founder of a grief-support organization, Daniel’s House Publications, is a full-time writer and author of contemporary novels. In 1997, her four-year-old son Daniel died from cancer treatments. Since then, her writing focus has been on how to help others in grief. She gives Writing the Heartache workshops across the country. Through her organization, she designs and sells comfort cards/remembrance cards and at her Carved By Heart imprint, carves personalized remembrance plaques. When she isn't writing or speaking, she is promoting her novels---Rain Song (2008), How Sweet It Is (2009), Hatteras Girl (2010), A Wedding Invitation (2011), and Still Life in Shadows (2012). Her devotional, Getting Out of Bed in the Morining, offers comfort and purpose for those dealing with grief and loss. Her cookbooks of memory---Down the Cereal Aisle, Memories Around the Table, and Slices of Sunlight, contain stories of food and memories of children who have died. In 2009, Alice married Carl in Las Vegas, and they live with her three children in Durham, NC. To Listen to Alice's Radio show To learn more about Alice visit her website: and go to her blogs: and

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