We’re not really a society that handles death, tragedy, and grief very well. It’s awkward to talk about painful even, and not because of the difficulty of the emotions that arise when we remember a tragedy, but simply because we are not very good at knowing what to say or what to do to help someone who is in mourning. This is a shame, of course, but it’s also really surprising considering how common death, disease, and tragedy are. Certainly everyone is touched by it somehow?
I was 6 years old when my newborn brother died, just days into my first grade year. At the time I was sad because my baby brother was gone, and I didn’t get a chance to hold him or play with him. As I’ve grown up, his life and death have come to mean different things to me. During my teenage years, he was someone I sometimes felt close to, wondered about, and even confided in on occasion. As a newlywed, I wondered more about what he would be doing now, and how our family would be different if he’d grown up with the rest of my siblings. Now that I’m a parent, I see the situation much differently and understand better the impact his death had on my own parents. And sometimes the scar of loss opens just a little and I mourn him again.
But my understanding of death and tragedy, and how to deal with it, has also been influenced greatly by my sister-in-law, whose second baby was stillborn at 37 weeks. In talking with her about Anna and what has been helpful to hear as she has mourned and continues to mourn her daughter, I’ve really come to see how we often make things more difficult for people who are mourning by not knowing what to say or do to help them. This week the Huffington Post published Suzanne Leigh’s list of mistakes people make when a friend’s child dies, and I’d like to add a few more thoughts on how to mourn with someone when they are dealing with the loss of someone they loved particularly a child.
1. DON’T JUST OFFER TO HELP
“Is there anything I can do for you?” is a great question. However, it is so open ended and vague that it is practically useless. People often don’t know what you are actually capable of or willing to do. And sometimes trying to accommodate your offer can add more stress to the situation. Of course you want to help, but if you are going to offer, be specific: “Can I come over tomorrow morning and do your laundry?” or, “I can pick people up at the airport if you need me to,” in case there are people flying in for a funeral.
2. DO GET TO WORK
While a specific offer of help is good, it is sometimes better to just show up and get to work. One of my most vivid memories from when my brother died is that for weeks we had friends and neighbors bring us dinner. Suzanne Leigh offers other suggestions: taking the dog for a walk, mowing the lawn, grocery shopping.
Anything is better than nothing. (At Anna’s graveside service, Great-grandma read a poem she wrote for Anna.)
3. DON’T AVOID TALKING ABOUT THE SITUATION
I’m guilty of talking around the situation, thinking that my presence is enough to show my support and that talking about the tragedy might be painful or awkward for them. I realize after reading Ms. Leigh’s piece that talking about what has happened gives the grieving a chance to remember their loved one and to release any feelings they may be struggling with. Any acknowledgement is better than “waiting” (or avoiding them) until they have time to process it on their own.
Again, anything is better than nothing.
4. DO LISTEN
If you are able to be there with them, let them talk. Don’t feel like you need to fill the silences. Ask them how they are doing, and then really listen to them.
5. DON’T CHASE AWAY LAUGHTER
Our perception, often, is that mourning is a heavy time that cracking a smile would be disrespectful or rude. But laughter has healing properties, and being able to smile, laugh, and be goofy helps. This picture is one of my favorites: at the lunch after my niece’s funeral, my sister-in-law, mother-in-law, and grandmother-in-law and everyone else found something to laugh about. My sister-in-law still, more than six years later, says that this moment was so much fun.
6. DON’T MINIMIZE THEIR LOSS
I think it is natural to want to look on the bright side, to say that it could have been worse. But, for the person who has lost their child, it couldn’t have been worse. It is the worst thing in the world to lose a child. Both my sister-in-law with her stillborn baby and I with my baby brother have had people say, “Well at least you didn’t really have a chance to get to know them.” At least! Or maybe the loss is even greater because we were deprived of that privilege as well?
7. DON’T SAY, “I COULD NEVER DO THAT.”
I believe this is kind of a backhanded way of saying they are strong, right? But really, it’s not like they chose to have their child die, or to develop cancer, or whatever. The only reason they are “doing that” is because they have to. And you would do it too, if you had to.
8. DON’T SAY, “I’M SO SORRY.”
These are the words that seem to automatically come out when someone tells you they’ve lost a loved one. But try to keep it in. When you say, “I’m so sorry,” how are they supposed to respond? “I’m sorry too”? Or maybe, “Yeah, this totally bites”? More often than not, when you say “I’m so sorry” to someone who has lost a loved one, they end up consoling you: “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.” But really, it’s not “okay.” It’s hard, and it totally bites.
9. DON’T FORGET
Living with loss is not something will ever go away. There will always be times in which the loss is more prominent: holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations. Those are times to reach out and let your friend know that you are thinking about them, that you love them, that you remember them and their loved one.More On