By Fran Dorf –
Thirty years after her son’s death, my friend still smarts when she remembers all the people who pointed out how lucky she was to have two other children. Another friend, whose brother recently died, grumbles that everyone keeps telling her it will get better with time. Another, whom I originally met in a grief support group, for years avoided anyone who hadn’t also lost a child. Having received my share of insensitive, even hurtful, comments after I lost my son, Michael, thirteen years ago, I certainly understand. Why do people so often say and do the wrong thing? And why do the bereaved often feel stabbed by well-intentioned comments that would normally roll right off our backs?
For all the violence and death Americans see in our “entertainment,” we want our real pain shrink-wrapped, bloodless, and over fast. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to alleviate the volatile, long-lasting, often ugly emotional stew that is grief; no magic potion to lessen the pain, despair, resentment, jealousy, shock, guilt, anger, numbness, ambivalence, bitterness, and anxiety. Let’s face it, grief can be messy. There can be appetite, sleep, and concentration issues; feelings of isolation and rejection; even fear of going crazy or losing control. All this makes most people uncomfortable.
If you want to comfort a grieving friend or relative, your primary task is to validate his/her feelings. Don’t say anything that minimizes those feelings-which, in effect, de-legitimizes them.
WHAT NOT TO DO
I’ve found that de-legitimizers can be divided into six categories:
Babblers: These people chatter on about the weather, a friend who had a heart attack, and so on. The bereaved can’t be distracted. Ignoring an elephant in the room just makes it bigger. Be self-aware. Maybe you’re chattering because you do so characteristically, or because you feel nervous and vulnerable. This isn’t about you.
Advice-givers: People often give advice such as, Start dating again, Have another child; Take a long vacation; Concentrate on your other children; It’s time to get over it; Remember the good times. But when we hear this advice, we may interpret it as, “What’s wrong with you? If only you’d take my wise counsel, you’d feel better.” I remember people advised me to take a sedative, but somehow I knew I needed to shed a certain number of tears (more than I could ever have imagined) and that it would be counterproductive to try to mask my pain with medication.
Platitude-offerers: When you spout clichés like, God must have wanted him, He’s in a better place, You did everything you could, the bereaved may feel offended. You may prefer to believe God must have wanted him, but the bereaved person may hate God at the moment, and thus feel de-legitimized for feeling what she feels.
Pseudo-empathizers: It’s particularly distressing for those experiencing “high grief” as from spouse loss to hear that you know just how we feel. If you haven’t experienced the same loss, you have no idea how we feel–and maybe not even then.
Lesson-Learners: There may be profound lessons to be learned from tragedy, but it’s best to let others learn them in our own time and way. Don’t tell us, Everything happens for a reason, You never know, We must learn to appreciate our lives, or Life is short.
Abandoners: Whatever the conscious or unconscious rationalizations-fear of saying the wrong thing, or feeling uncomfortable in the face of grief-if you walk away from a friend who needs you, you’re probably walking away from the friendship permanently.
HOW TO HELP
Take your cues from the bereaved person. If she’s sitting quietly, sit beside her. If he’s using humor to cope, laugh a little. Offer a hug or hold a hand.
Let us tell our story, in as much detail as we want, even if we repeat it, even if it’s horrific and hard to hear. It actually helps people to tell the story.
Read about grief, or search online under “grief” or “bereavement.” You honor your bereaved friend by learning all you can. Good books include, A Good Friend for Bad Times (Augsburg Fortress) by Deborah Bowen and Susan Strickler, and, I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye (Sourcebooks) by Pamela Blair and Brook Noel. I also recommend my own novel, Saving Elijah, which was praised by the “Washington Post” for its “tough minded interrogative approach to grief, and which for all its supernatural trappings and its wise talking, spectral literary device, is essentially an extended metaphor for the psychological process of grief.”
Acknowledge the deceased person. Tell a wonderful anecdote. Even now, I am grateful when someone mentions Michael. Just saying his name aloud brings him back into the world.
Offer practical and specific support. Make calls, pick up the kids from school, cook a meal, mow the lawn. Don’t say, “Is there anything I can do?” Or, “Call me if you need me.” The fog of bereavement is thick. Decide what you can do, given our relationship and appropriate cultural/religious considerations, and then do it.
Stay in touch. Remember that when the formal mourning period is over and the last casserole is gone, we’re still here, alone and grieving. Now is the time to show up.
Contact the bereaved on significant days-birthdays, death days, anniversaries. These are difficult, especially “firsts.” Don’t avoid, ignore, or forget them. We haven’t.
Banish the word closure from your vocabulary. There is no such thing, and who would want it, anyway? We incorporate our losses into our lives. I’m a different person than I was before I lost Michael, and my loss informs every day of my life. Psychologists have proposed many ways to describe how we find a way to live with loss, but the one I find most useful is that we must “reinvest” in a new reality without the lost one. I eventually wrote a novel and my husband and I established an educational program for toddlers with special needs, in memory of our son, but reinvestment can be small and private too, revealed in a change in priorities, attitudes, interests or goals.
Meet us where we are. Don’t have expectations. Don’t compare one grief to another. Remember that grief may take years to work through. Be prepared for tears, moaning, sighing, wailing, trembling, even screaming. Don’t take anger personally. Remember that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief-denial, bargaining, anger, despair, acceptance-come not in stages but in circles and waves like a roller coaster.
The best definition of compassion I’ve ever found is a Buddhist one: “Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering.” It takes work, stamina, and commitment to support the bereaved. Be present. Be humble. Observe. Reflect. Allow silence. Don’t judge. Accept.
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Fran Dorf is the author of the novels A Reasonable Madness (Birch Lane, Signet, Vivisphere); Flight (Dutton, Signet, Vivisphere) and Saving Elijah (Putnam), which a starred PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY review called, “a stunning novel that crackles with suspense, dark humor, and provocative questions.” Part ghost story, part family drama, and part thriller, Saving Elijah was inspired by the loss of Fran’s son, Michael. Fran also holds a master’s degree in psychology and conducts “Write-to-heal” workshops to help people cope with grief, trauma, and/or loss.
Her website/blog is http://www.frandorf.com . (THE BRUISED MUSE).
A version of this article originally appeared in Bottom Line/Personal, June 1, 2008Tags: grief, hope