Thursday, April 26, 2012

Say WHAT???

During the ten weeks my dad was sick and in the months since he went on ahead, I have been touched by the people who have reached out to me in some way in an attempt to comfort me in my grief.  Before my own very personal loss, I really had no idea what to say or do when someone I knew was grieving.  I tried, but I’m sure now that I missed the mark in at least some cases.  I didn’t know, as I am sure some people with whom I have come into contact since my own loss also don’t.

Every loss, every person who is grieving, and every situation is different, and so the words and actions that may be appropriate in one case may not in another.  However, I have learned that in general there are some things that are often said in an effort to comfort someone that might truly be comforting, some that can be improved upon, and some that are really not so effective.  

Someone told me at one point while Dad was sick after I had commented about the way he kept asking for candy that she’d heard that sugar “feeds” cancer cells.  “Maybe it’s the cancer asking for the candy, not your dad,” she said.  Armchair medical advice, either during the illness or after the fact: not helpful

A couple of months after Dad died, someone I know implied that she’d known from the time he was diagnosed that he wouldn’t survive, and then she added, “I kept wanting to tell you, but you were so caught up in the whole thing.”  Nope, not helpful – in fact, if you feel the need to say something like this that belittles or second-guesses the hope and/or the decisions made while someone’s loved one was ill, you should seriously consider ducking for the punch that is very likely coming your way.

One of the things that completely pisses me off now is when someone who has heard about my dad’s battle with brain cancer and subsequent death and then feels the need to tell me other stories about people with cancer.  “My aunt’s best friend had cancer too, and she really had a hard time with the chemo before she got better,” someone actually said to me recently.  Um, no, you do NOT want to get into a contest with me about suffering or loss or anything else related, and it is not at all comforting to tell me that the person you know survived what my dad could not.  It's not that I can't stand to hear about someone else who has or has had cancer; I am very well aware that this horrible disease is out there and that much of what my family went through wasn't unique.  I just don't appreciate it when this kind of information is presented to me in such a way that it seems like a one-up pissing contest.  

I’ve heard the statement “I know just how you feel” at least several dozen times over the past 18 months or so, and, for the record, this is a claim that cannot possibly be true.  Hell, the majority of the time, even I don’t know exactly how I feel in regards to my loss (Lost? Angry? Sad? Scared? Scarred? And the list goes on and on!), so there is no way in hell someone else can know!  A statement like that seems condescending in a way, like my grief and my feelings aren’t that important or special; it doesn’t feel supportive, at least not to me.  

Any “at least” statements that may be on the tip of your tongue should be squelched immediately:  It is NEVER a good idea to say “At least you had many years together,” “At least he didn’t suffer for too long,” or “At least you got to say goodbye.”  Doing so minimizes the loss and makes it seem like the person who is grieving isn’t grateful enough.  Most grievers realize the fact that IT COULD ALMOST ALWAYS HAVE BEEN WORSE, but we are also deeply aware that things could’ve turned out better.  We need to feel what we feel, not to have our emotions second-guessed or judged, even in an implied fashion.

Be strong” is another one that really gets to me, whether it is said to me or to someone else in an effort to comfort.  I keep wanting to say, “Why???”  I think it’s good NOT to be strong some of the time; I think that grief that isn’t let out WILL at some point become illness of some type.  When someone tells me to be strong, I feel like yet another burden or responsibility - one that I will not be able to live up to - has been thrust upon me, which, obviously, isn't helpful or comforting.

In my opinion, it’s also a good idea to tread lightly concerning issues of spirituality; it is not unusual for a person to question his or her belief system in the face of tragedy, and in some cases a message based on your convictions may not only not match up with the feelings of the bereaved but may actually invoke negative emotions, despite your intentions.  Here are some commonly used expressions and some examples of possible reactions to illustrate what I’m talking about:  

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” -- Um, WHAT??  So, following that logic, should we all be wishing to ALMOST be killed?  

“God may not give you what you want in life, but he will give you what you need." -- Did I NEED my loved one to suffer? To die?  

“People are only given what they are strong enough to handle.”  -- Does this mean if I were weaker my loved one would have survived?  Wow, talk about guilt and confusion!

Even the simple “It was God’s will” can be viewed as not that helpful or even dismissive and inflammatory; many people who have witnessed the suffering often involved in a terminal illness in particular may have trouble believing or accepting that their loved one’s pain and death were part of a plan.  Personally, when people have said, “He’s in a better place now” to me since my dad died, I still want to scream, “But he loved it here and I know he wanted to stay longer!”  Hearing this statement, I do NOT feel that my grief is being addressed; I feel like the person is implying that I should be glad my dad got sick and died.  Nope.  Not comforting, at least not to me.

Personally, I can only view statements like this as "bullshitty."

One thing often said to people who are grieving that I’ve mentioned before is “Time heals all wounds.”  I won’t get into my issues with that one again right now, but just suffice to say, nope, not helpful.  

These comments may serve to comfort some individuals, but they can also play a role in minimizing the loss and may even seem to suggest that the griever shouldn't be grieving.  This is not the time for a theological discussion or to try to convert someone over to your own beliefs.   In some cases, you may choose to follow the person’s lead in discussing religious beliefs, but, as I said, I suggest sensitivity and proceeding with extreme caution in any case.

Something that I learned during my dad’s illness is that, even as well-meaning as general offers for help likely are, saying things like “Let me know if you need anything” or “Keep me updated on his condition” are not really that helpful when the family is dealing with extreme stress and/or grief.  Statements like these actually put the burden on the person who is already overwhelmed with trying to cope with a crisis.  A concrete offer of help like “I’m going to the grocery store tomorrow and would love to pick up anything that’s on your list too” or an expression of concern that does not require a response on their part are much better.  During my time of need, a friend of mine text-messaged me daily to let me know she was thinking about me, and each time she added, “No need to respond,” which let me off the hook from having to thank her or to give her an update if I didn’t have time or the inclination to talk.   

Here’s one of the biggest blunders I’ve experienced in my own grief: having someone ignore my loss/pretend like it didn’t happen.  I think some people do this because they aren’t sure what to say, and in some cases they may think that bringing up the subject may upset the person who is grieving.  Take it from me: grief and loss are one huge elephant in the room; they may be able to be avoided, but they really cannot effectively be completely ignored.  In my opinion and experience, it’s better to say something that’s not perfectly phrased than to say nothing at all.  The person who is grieving is ALWAYS thinking about their loved one on some level, and it won’t make them sadder to have their loss acknowledged.  It very likely will, however, be upsetting or offensive to not have anything mentioned because the person will then feel like their loss has been forgotten or ignored or that you don't care about them or their loss. 

What’s MOST helpful if you knew the person who has died is to share a story or a memory about them.  In letting the person who is grieving know that their loved one left an impression on you if that is the case, you will let them know that their loss matters, that they are not alone, and that their loved one will live on in memories other than their own.

What should you say if you didn’t know the person who died or if you don’t have a story to share about their loved one? My recommendation is something empathetic, something that validates their loss, something that lets them know that they are not alone.  Any of these will work:
"You must miss him so much."
“I’ll always remember her ___ “ (laughing, smiling, helping others, etc.)
"I can't imagine how painful it must be to lose someone you love so much."
“I know she would be so proud of you.”
Or just the simple, “I’m sorry for your loss.”  

If nothing else comes to mind, it’s ok to say you don’t know what to say or that you will be thinking about them or something else non-specific like that.  It may not necessarily be original, but if it is something that is spoken with consideration and from the heart, it will serve its purpose.

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