|Rouault, Miserere series, plate 1.|
We are grateful to the many friends and family members who have reached out to us in our loss. We've learned, though, that many people feel that they don't know how to speak to someone in a situation like ours. The sentiments in the Hallmark cards just feel even more inadequate than usual. You wonder if you'll make someone's pain worse by saying the "wrong thing". Some well-intentioned folk are so paralyzed by this fear that they end up saying and doing exactly nothing. As the recipients of many condolences and expressions of sympathy, we thought it might be helpful to share some thoughts about what has spoken to us, and the ideas we have noted for when we need to be the ones who console someone else. As in all human interactions, other people's experience may vary. (Some more general advice can be found here and here, if you would like to look at this from other points of view.)
So, based on our own experience, what has been meaningful for us?
- Say something! In a moment, I'm going to give some suggestions about things that it might be better not to say, but those are secondary. The primary thing that is meaningful is that you take the time and energy to reach out to the grieving person. If you don't know how to express your thoughts, you can say "I don't know what to say" or "I can't imagine what this is like for you". We heard both of those many times and they are a great deal more significant than silence. There is no substitute for your showing up.
- Don't be afraid to name the grief - to say the name of the one who has died, or to use the word "cancer" or "Alzheimer's". When Eli/Miriam died, we wanted to hear people speak their name (and I think this is a common experience). We wanted to hear your story about the fun time you had had with Eli, or about the moment when he had encouraged you to carry on when life seemed hard, or about the amazing murder mystery party that he had apparently created out of nothing.
- Stay in contact. At first, everyone wants to express their sympathy or ask how they can "help" (more about that in a moment). But, sooner or later, your life is going to slip back into normal; the shock you experienced in hearing of your friend's loss or bad news is going to fade away - for you. Don't forget that it is not going to fade away for them. We grieving ones need your long-term support, and I cannot tell you how heartwarming and meaningful it is when a friend keeps coming back and "checking in" - after three weeks, after six weeks, after two months - until you come to understand that they are there for you for as long as it takes.
- As far as help goes, make regular specific offers. It is hardly any use to say "If there is anything I can do..."; all you end up doing is burdening the grieving one with another job, that of thinking up a task for you to carry out. Instead, anticipate specific needs: "I will bring a meal round next Tuesday evening"; "Can I come by tomorrow afternoon, and let's go for a short walk". (A not-too-demanding activity, like a walk, that you can do together with the one who is grieving, can make a lot of difference.)
- Related to the previous one, if you promise to do something, follow through with it. A corollary of this is - don't make vague promises (then neither you nor anybody else can tell whether you followed through or not). It seems to me that people sometimes make unspecific promises to assuage their own need to feel useful - "We must have you guys round for a meal sometime". This does not help the grieving one - it's like a hand reached out and then withdrawn. Grief is a time to be specific.
- Many sites (like the ones I linked above) will stress that it's not about you. This isn't your chance to share the story of your own relative's cancer, or suggest a new miracle diet, or to talk about how upset you are, or how confident you are that "God is in control". No, this is about the grieving person, and helping them is going to be stressful for you. Do you have your own support system in place?