What are we talking about today?

Some days have themes. I don't necessarily post something in each of these topic areas every week.

Sunday: Church-related or spiritual things.
Monday: Running.
Tuesday: Books.
Wednesday: Transportation.
Friday: Green living.

19 February 2017

What Not to Say, Updated

Writing my weekend blog posts before I go out of town is the closest I'll ever get to time travel. Right now, while you're reading this, I'm probably asleep in El Paso. But while I'm writing it, I'm very much awake on Thursday night in Cincinnati. What's it like in the future, y'all? You don't have to tell me-- I'll be awake and running in the future in just a few hours. I tried doing the math on how many hours, but going two time zones west is too much for my puny brain.

Anyway. Today's post is an update on one I wrote back when I'd only been widowed a few months, now that I've had a bit of time to recover from the bizarrely dumb things some folks said. Whether we like it or not, the wrong words will pour out of our very human mouths when faced with other peoples' grief. Can you avoid that? Probably not, but I'll give you a few ideas. A cheat sheet, if you will. Please do remember that grief is somewhat idiosyncratic, and what seems callous to one person will seem reasonable to another.

I honestly didn't take photos of
fancy old gravestones so I'd
have images for my grief-y
 blog posts, but I do admit it's
worked out well.
Things that are good to say

1. "Please text/call/Facebook me, even if it's the middle of the night."

This is not for casual acquaintances. You should only say this to someone with whom you already have a text/call/Facebook relationship. You should also edit it to fit your own boundaries--if you have small children in the house, 2 AM phone calls may not be how you can help, for example. Only say this if you are willing for the person to take you up on it.

I have about six people, scattered across multiple time zones and with assorted sleeping habits, who I took up on this offer (and still do, from time to time). I can usually find someone awake during my middle of the night when it's not that hour for them.

2. "What can I bring you?" 

This one works for anyone, unless the bereaved has some sort of restraining order against you. Be prepared with suggestions if the person says "I don't know." Be prepared with non-food ideas if the person says "My fridge is full." Be prepared to get a gift card if the person says, "No, thank you," but gift-giving is still one of your love languages. They'll appreciate it later. Promise. (You know, apart from the aforementioned restraining order people. Those folks should stay away.)

3. "Can I go to the bank/supermarket/library/etc. for you?"

Yes. Yes, you can. Again, maybe this isn't something you'd say to someone you've only said hello to twice. If you don't know them well enough to know if they're too private to accept this offer, skip straight to a nice sympathy card with some kind words inside.

4. "Do you want to go to (fun thing you guys usually do together)?"

Give this one a while before asking the first time, and keep in mind that the answer will likely be 'no' for a while. Please, please don't stop asking. One day, the answer will be 'yes' again.

5. Sharing a favourite memory or something you liked or appreciated about the departed person is always welcome.

Note: this means other kinds of stories, like "most embarrassing moment" or "something horrible he did to me when we are kids," are probably not welcome. Don't be the weird cousin who tells awkward stories at the wake.

6. Go to the funeral.

It's the best chance to show that you care. You don't even have to say anything. I'd be lying if I said I have instant recall of every person who was at Chadwick's funeral, but I do know that every person who stepped through the door made my heart swell a bit more. Especially those who travelled long distances and were a surprise. You never know how much your presence will bless someone.

7. "I care about you."

Just don't be creepy. If you don't know the person well enough to be non-creepy, there's always the standard-issue and perfectly acceptable:

8. "I'm so sorry to hear of your loss." 

Cliched? Sure. Appreciated? Oh, yes. Ever so much more than the ones we're about to go over.

This one was both sweet and sad. I wonder if Martha
has any living descendents who know she and her baby
are remembered here.

Things That Are Better Unsaid; or, Please See #7 Above

1. For the love of everything, please don't race to post your condolences on Facebook. And if you do, don't act surprised if the family is less than pleased.

If you don't know for sure that all family and friends who should hear the news firsthand have been informed, find something else to do with your fingers for a couple hours. I recommend a good cup of tea and perhaps a crossword puzzle. Honestly, the deceased is not going to get any less dead if you don't say something right away. Even if your intentions are good, please wait. Go ahead and send a text to the widow(er) if you like, though--but again, don't expect an immediate response, or indeed any response at all. It's not a grief-off.

Also, if you think you should have been among the first to get a phone call and weren't, or you read it from someone on Facebook before you got the call, take any aggravation/resentment you may feel about that and deal with it, appropriately and quietly. "Appropriately" is not saving it up for a couple years and then airing your grievances, by the way. Give the bereaved some slack--some of mine and Chadwick's relatives and good friends found out from Facebook, because there are only so many times anyone can say, "My husband died this morning" before it gets to be too much.

2. "S/He's in a better place."

This may be true, but that doesn't mean you have to say it out loud in the presence of family members who are struggling just to stay upright. (Hawaii is also a better place, but I wouldn't want him going there and leaving me behind, either.)

And the next is like unto it:

3. "It's comforting to know that s/he's with Jesus." 

It may not be, actually. So keep that one to yourself and enjoy being comforted by the thought, if it helps you.

4. "God needed him/her more that you did."

No, God bloody well did not. If this is the best you can do, just sign the guest register and take a seat with your mouth closed. This is a terrible thing to say, not only because it's not comforting, but also because it turns God into some kind of weirdo body-snatching alien from a bad horror movie. Just don't.

5. "Did you guys know he was sick?" or "Was this a surprise?"

I cannot stress this enough: there's a good chance this is none of your business, and in the first few weeks, the bereaved probably doesn't want to share it hundreds of times. Other people have almost certainly asked before you. I honestly got asked this so many times that I started telling people that a pulmonary embolism is an acute condition that can happen to anyone at any time, which is not 100% true, but usually gave the questioner reason to ponder his or her own mortality, preferably somewhere I wasn't.

After a while, people started to phrase it as, "Can I ask what happened?" which at least gives the bereaved a chance to say "I'd rather not talk about it" if that's how they feel. If you simply must ask, this is probably the way to do it.

6. "How are you?" or "How are you, really?"

I know, I know. It seems like a well-intentioned, innocent enough question. The problem is, every second person asks it, putting the emphasis in those exact places. The further problem is, when asked that way, this question implies a close relationship that the person in grief may not feel right then. A better option than this is #1 from the "What to Say" list, which gives the widow(er) the choice about when and how much to talk to you about how she/he really is.

7. Anything that might be trying to get the person to look on the bright side.

We're not going to get to the bright side any faster just because some dimwit is trying to "help" get us there. This is, in fact, one of those times when looking on the dark side is totally appropriate. There's a road out, but in no universe does someone come out of the darkness faster if you shine a Maglite into their face. Again, sit down and be quiet if you can't come up with anything else.

I've probably missed some important ones, but this should be enough to get you started. Above and beyond all else, think before you speak. Always. That's the best way to save everyone some aggravation, embarrassment, and heartache.


Anonymous said...

I love your blog. You manage to be real, witty, honest, and add a dash of humor, all at the same time.

My dear Gramps had been gone two years (in the past few days we hit two years) and my Grammy is always happy (even if it makes her a bit sad) when we remember him out loud with her. She says a lot of people won't mention him, (I guess they are afraid to remind her that he is dead) even when it was a fresh wound rather than a scabbed or scarred wound, and the lack of discussion or memory was worse for her. She says the memories comfort her. She loves to hear how loved he was.

I'm sorry for your loss, Su. I'm sorry for your hurting heart. But I am glad to know you, and I love you blog. I think your awesome. And I think as long as you lean into Jesus, you will be able to dig into this garden we call life.

I don't know you real well (yet, but I will (this isn't a threat)) but number one on your first list of things good or OK to say applies.

Grahame said...

Thank you. I have often cringed when hearing someone say something meant to be comforting but really incredibly hurtful.

Su Wilcox said...

@She who is not named but I figured out your secret identity anyway: You're pretty awesome, too. And the whole "let's not say anything that reminds the widow she's widowed" thing is hilarious. Like there's a chance your Grammy will forget for one minute.

@Grahame: Alas, yes.