What are we talking about today?

I'll get back to theme days once I find a groove of posting regularly. In the meantime, most of my posts are about some variation of books, bikes, buses, or Broadway. Plus bits about writing, nonprofits, and grief from time to time.

This blog is mostly lighthearted and pretty silly. It's not about the terrible things happening in the world, but please know that I'm not ignoring those things. I just generally don't write about them here.

19 February 2018

What Not to Say, Again

I wasn't going to bother with this post in 2018. I've written it down a few times now, with updates as appropriate, and I thought, "People who are reading my blog have probably already internalized this and don't need to hear it again." But then just a few weeks ago, a Facebook friend announced a loss, and I watched in resignation as her page filled up with dumb stuff and I thought, "Yeah, I need to write it down again." I said so on Twitter, and this happened:
I took a bunch of pics in a cemetery
once. Those pics have really come
in handy.
Indeed. And even if I hadn't reached that conclusion, my cousins' experiences last week have only served to underline this need. So, here it is again, and please feel free to share it as broadly as you like in the hopes that well-meaning but poorly equipped friends can get some fresh ideas. And maybe that the insensitive clods will at least have a go at keeping quiet.

For the times that you don't manage to stop yourself in time, shake it off and do better the next time. Whether we like it or not, the wrong words will pour out of our very human mouths when faced with other peoples' grief. Also, it's good to remember that while most of these things that I suggest you not say are pulled from the consensus of widows groups and similar sources (yes, I did more research than just living through it), grief is idiosyncratic. It's possible you'll run across someone who's okay with these statements. But it's easiest not to count on people in grief hearing what you mean and not what you say, not when there are other options.


Part 1: Things That Are Better Left Unsaid

1. For the love of everything, please don't race to be the first post your condolences on Facebook

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 while you wait for the closest relative to post first. 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--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 and find a healthy way of dealing with it that doesn't involve airing your grievances to the bereaved. Ever. This does not have a statute of limitations. Give the family some slack--there are only so many times anyone can say, "My [family member] died this morning" before it gets to be too much.

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

My aunt and cousins have just had to deal with (and are probably still dealing with) being asked this. I cannot stress this enough: if you don't already know, it's none of your business right now. Full stop, no exceptions, especially in the first few weeks when the bereaved probably don't want to share what happened hundreds of times. Other people have almost certainly asked before you, so please restrain yourself. Ask a more distant relative, if you must, but not the people sitting in the front row at the funeral.

I 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 else. If you don't want this treatment, it's best not to ask.

Caveat: 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. (And if that is the answer you get, back off immediately.) If some time has gone by and you've still never heard what it was, this is probably the way to do it. Just please don't assume that every dead person was harboring a secret fatal illness.

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

This may be true, but you shouldn't say it out loud in the presence of family members who are struggling just to stay upright and survive the next minute. Hawaii is also a better place, but I wouldn't want him going there and leaving me behind, either. If this is comforting to you, say it to yourself. Don't say it to the family.

And the next is like unto it:

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

You don't know whether this is comforting or not. (Spoiler alert: For me, it's not, even though I believe that it's true.) So also keep this one to yourself, if it helps you.

And the next is like unto it again:

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

No, God bloody well did not. I don't understand why people of faith have so many awful platitudes we've cooked up for times of crisis, but it's time for us all to forget them. 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.

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, everyone wants to put the emphasis in those exact places. The further problem is, when asked with any kind of emphasis, the question carries a connotation of "You can tell me the truth, even things you don't want to tell other people, because I'm being all kind and understanding!" Yes, even if that's not what you mean, that's how it sounds, and that being the case it can imply a closer relationship than you truly share with the bereaved. Steer clear.

On the other hand, asking "How are you?" without any weird emphases and being open to an honest answer, or to no answer at all, is not as bad. If nothing else, "How are you?" is how we open a lot of conversations, so it's at least a common convention and is less likely to be misunderstood. However, know in advance that the answer may well be an exasperated, "How do you think I am?" So tread carefully.

7. "Were you close?"

Okay, I pulled this one from my personal archives. Obviously, this isn't something people ask widows. (At least, I hope not!) When I lost uncles in 1997 and 2001, this was all anyone could ask me. Fortunately, I haven't heard it this past week. So this one might be an age thing, the result of young people overall having less experience with grief. Whatever the reason, please don't ask this. They'll probably tell you without you asking, anyway.

8. 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 someone is trying to "help" get us there, no matter how good your intentions are. 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 forcibly shine a Maglite into their face.

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. And of course, I'm not leaving you hanging without some replacement ideas. Keep reading:


Part 2: 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 able and willing for the person to take you up on it.

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. Stick it in a card and drop it in the mail--they'll appreciate it later. Promise.

Caveat: Don't bring or give anything if you will be in a huff later if you didn't get a thank-you card. It's possible that the family will run out of steam for writing all the thank-you notes they intended, or will never conjure the energy in the first place. Give with no strings or expectations, or don't give at all.

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've always done together]?"

Give this one a little while before asking the first time, and keep in mind that the answer will likely be 'no' the first few times you ask. (Make sure you're spacing out your invites appropriately. This is also idiosyncratic--weekly? Monthly? Maybe next year? Pay attention to your friend's response to decide when to ask again.) Please, please don't give up on your friend. One day, the answer will be 'yes.'

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

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

Also, don't hold back on telling stories even if it's been weeks or months or years since the deceased passed. The idea of not wanting to remind the bereaved about his/her loss is silly; it's not like we're going to forget. If someone says they don't want to hear a memory right then, accept that in the moment, but that doesn't mean that they'll feel that way forever. In fact, there's a good chance they may reach out to you to hear that story once they're in a better frame of mind.

6. Go to the funeral.

This is not one of mine; it comes from a wise friend (who came to Chadwick's funeral, btw), and she is 100% correct. 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. Even in those dark moments, we all know that there are no words. Better to say a few and let your presence speak for you than to try to "fix" it.

So if you've read all this and you're mad at me now or think I don't know what I'm talking about, congratulations! You are my target audience. Don't send me an angry comment; instead, re-read this through a few times and try to memorize the things in Part 2. Print it off and hang it up, if you need to. Take it along to the next funeral as a cheat sheet.

Above all, thank you for trying to lighten the load for someone else. That's my point for writing this again--to help you help your nearest and dearest through an awful time. Keep in mind that your words have power and you'll do just fine.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful advice--thanks for sharing. I think many people inadvertently hurt the very person they are trying to comfort by not considering what to say. Would only add that saying something on your list is still better than saying or doing nothing. Had that happen to our family recently and it was very painful. If you don't know what to say, a hug works.

Su Wilcox said...

Yes. Excellent point. I rarely think of hugging because I'm not a huggy person, but most people are, especially at times like this.