Do NOT Say These to a Bereaved Parent–or Any Other Mourner

Grieving the death of a loved one defies description. It hurts, disrupts, distracts, eviscerates, overturns, and shatters. When the Reaper removes a dear one from your friend’s life, that life is forever changed–and so is your friend.

Even others who’ve experienced a loss of similar devastation can imagine only a fraction of what your bereaved friend now faces. Every relationship between souls is unique, as is each loss.

Some principles, however, apply to comforting the bereaved in almost all situations. The link below is to a post called 6 Things Never to Say to a Bereaved Parent.” The writer, Angela Miller, tells exactly how some of the most commonly used but least helpful platitudes come across to mourning souls. Regardless of the kind of loss your friend has experienced, please read her article for helpful insights into what NOT to say.

(I’m summarizing her main points below, but please, please see her article in full!)

  1. Do NOT say “Time heals all wounds.”
  2. Do NOT say “Let go … Move on.”
  3. Do NOT say “Have faith.”
  4. Do NOT say “Everything happens for a reason.”
  5. Do NOT say “At least…”
  6. Do NOT say “Be thankful.”

I’ve not experienced the death of a child, so I don’t claim to know that pain. I do know that in each of the losses of my own life, the sentiments Ms. Miller describes are similar to what I felt and to what friends have expressed their feelings to be. (Please, please read her full article.)

MLK Jr., Kennedy, and Me

On Monday, January 20, the US acknowledges the lifework (and untimely death) of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a national day of service. While it’s important to honor his dream and further its fulfillment, my thoughts drift from his public role to his personal identity. Yes, he was a dedicated civil rights leader, but above that he was a son, a brother, a husband, a father. When he was murdered, he left behind a grieving family.

Of course, the King family isn’t the only family to have suffered public awareness of (and participation in) private bereavement. Five years earlier, First Lady Jackie Kennedy received hundreds of thousands of condolence letters after her husband’s assassination. Last week they were released to the public. I’m not surprised that she kept them. I’ve kept every note (both handwritten and electronic) written to me after my husband’s death.

Both Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. King grieved their personal losses in public. They lost far more than a public figure; each widow lost her husband, and their children lost their fathers.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been touched by images of the young widow Kennedy and her son saluting his father’s casket. Emotion has always welled up when I’ve heard and read the stirring words of the late Reverend Doctor King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Now that I’m widowed, too, I see that the legacies of these men who changed our nation are inextricably enmeshed in the grief their families suffered. These images and words tug at my empathy. Yes, I honor their legacies, but that honor is both tainted and hallowed by my own understanding of what it is to grieve not a leader but a loved one.

During this week’s Day of Service, many worthy causes deserve your time and attention. I don’t mean to discourage anyone from volunteering with any organization or at any event. May I suggest you consider instead serving individuals who’ve suffered the loss of a loved one? Whether the loss is recent or “old,” whether the survivor is someone you know well or only know “of,” whether you reach out to children who’ve lost a parent or to a parent who’s lost a child, do something to show you care.

Sometimes it’s good to join forces in large groups to elicit change when we “have a dream.” Sometimes, though, we need to reach out one-on-one to exemplify “the brotherhood of man.”

Grief Is Not a Spectator Sport

Grief is not a spectator sport. I began writing this weeks and weeks ago but struggled with the attitude my earlier drafts conveyed. Recently, though, I was inspired by a post written by Megan Devine entitled Have You Been the News? When Private Pain Is a Public Spectacle.”  [I hope you’ll take time to read the insightful telling of her experience and outlook.]

I used to watch, read, and listen to news around the clock. I felt for people whose lives were impacted by tragedy. I offered prayers in their behalf. I loaned my (admittedly scant) resources toward alleviating their sufferings or helping others in similar circumstances.

In January 2006, “the news” became more personal. I’d known Amber Peck — a bright and loving, cheerful and inquisitive young woman — through my friends, her brother and sister-in-law. The first time I heard newscasters report on missing campers in the Ocala National Forest, I didn’t hear their names, but I nevertheless offered a prayer for them and their families. It wasn’t until the next day I learned Amber was one of the two.

News coverage that once fingertip-touched my heart into a skipped beat now threw it into unfamiliar pounding. From that moment on, news reports of missing persons have meant recalling the unbearable pain of uncertainty. I witnessed tiny fragments of what Amber’s family experienced during those agonizing (yet hopeful) days before she and her friend were found. After their untimely deaths, I witnessed her family’s suffering up close. I grieved for their loss,  and I grieved Amber for myself, too. 

In the years that followed, I still read or listened to the news. However, I all but stopped watching broadcasts — tuning in only for the weather — because I couldn’t bear seeing victims’ or survivors’ eyes. Watching “real life” news stories meant witnessing “real life” loss, and I’d learned a friend’s fraction of that pain. Even features with positive outcomes elicited shameful envy. While I rejoiced over reunions for the “lucky” story-of-the-day families, the finality of the Pecks’ loss left me “jealous” in their behalf. 

My aversion to the news intensified after my husband died. Where news organizations reported causes of war, terrorism, natural disasters, crashes, and crimes, I heard and saw stories of grieving survivors. I wept for the dead, but I sobbed for their loved ones.

The next time you hear about breaking news, chances are the “real life” story is of breaking hearts, forever changed. If you know the family, do offer your condolences. Share memories of their loved one. Be with them in body and spirit — and remain with them long after the cameras and recorders have clicked off.

Don’t Bury the Living with the Dead

One aspect of grief that blindsides many mourners is the sensation of being forgotten after the earliest phase of their loss — as if they died, too. Immediately after a death, an amazing outpouring of loving support comes from family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. It is wonderful, but it fades away. As time passes the bereaved are still making tremendous, painful adjustments while their friends’ unchanged lives shift back into “normal.” Grieving survivors often feel as if no one cares for them anymore.

I’ve networked with thousands of widows and widowers since my husband’s death, so I’m drawing this example from my experience with this population of mourners (though the principal of post-funeral isolation applies to other losses as well). Bereaved spouses often find themselves no longer asked to join other couples they regularly socialized with before losing their partners. I’ve heard widows say they felt as if married friends didn’t trust them around their husbands anymore. (“As if I had any interest in someone else’s hubby while grieving and wanting my own!”) I’ve heard widowers say they felt as if they no longer mattered to anyone without their late wives. (“I guess the people I thought were ‘our’ friends were really just ‘hers.'”) I’ve heard widows and widowers from their 20s to their 80s say they “lost” not only their spouses but their friends, too. (“After my husband [or wife] died, it’s like I died to our friends, too.”)

Even if you’re afraid of saying “the wrong thing” to a friend who is “still” grieving, saying something — saying anything — is better than saying nothing at all. After my mother’s death I made the mistake of assuming that Dad would hurt more if I mentioned her to him than if I let him “forget” the pain of her loss. I held debates with myself on significant dates every year. I was hurting that she wasn’t with us, but what if he’d forgotten it was her birthday or their anniversary? Would my saying something about it make him remember and feel worse? It was ridiculous (and hypocritical) for me to think so, because I found such consolation in having others speak of her!

Between the bereaved and those not directly involved in that loss, a greater gulf can separate good intentions from the ability to offer meaningful, long-term consolation. Communication is better than assumption. In the weeks and months following the loss, ask the bereaved what support would most benefit them. Listen, then ask again a few weeks later, too, because they may not know themselves, and if they do the answers will often change.

It wasn’t until I began recovering from the initial shock of my husband’s death that I realized an inkling of my foolish assumption. I wanted people to remember his birthday as much as I’d wanted (and still want!) them to remember Mom’s. I didn’t feel like celebrating my wedding anniversary — our 25th was the first I faced without him — but I needed to have it acknowledged.

Whether your friend’s loss is recent or not, jot down some dates in your calendar now: the deceased’s birth and death dates, your friend’s birthday (and anniversary, if applicable). If you don’t know the dates, ask. Make reminders to acknowledge the dates when they approach. During the first year, let your friends know you’re thinking about them as “that” day of each month approaches. You don’t have to say why (unless they ask), but it will boost their spirits during tough times.

 

Bereavement and the Post-Holiday Blues

After the holidays, when parties are over and visitors have stopped dropping in, someone who has recently lost a loved one may face new lows of loneliness. While some may find the new year an open gateway to a fresh start, others may find it a slammed door of separation from shared experiences and future dreams with their deceased dear ones. For some, the post-holiday blues may reflect the bereavement faced not long after a death.

How long has it been since your friend’s life changed forever? A few days? A couple of weeks? Half a year?

In the beginning, a newly grieving, raw-hearted mourner may be nearly as overwhelmed by outpourings of support as by the loss itself. Picture a parched child trying to sip from an open fire hose. The analogy is imperfect, but I hope it conveys the idea. By all means,  do offer your support and your presence! (But be understanding if your friend “backs away” at first — or even after repeated gestures on your part.)

Later, the initial shock of death wears off and day-to-day realizations and adjustment difficulties set in.  Sadly, as friends and loved ones return to their “normal” lives, their life-sustaining (though drenching) support often wanes to a trickle. Picture the same open-mouthed child now waiting beneath a stalactite for quenching water — one drop at a time. The mourning soul still thirsts, but expected sources of hydration have all but dried up.

Just as the post-holiday ebb of socializing may leave you feeling the loss of interaction with your friends and coworkers as your life gets back to “business as usual,” the decrease in holiday-minded activities can usher in a newly darkened period of social “dehydration” for those in mourning.

Here are some ways you can offer life-sustaining, soul-quenching “water” (in manageable quantities) to your friend whose loved one died:

  • Acknowledge the absence. (“I’m sorry. I’m sure you’re missing her today.”) I appreciated (and still do appreciate!) expressions of acknowledgement.
  • Be dependable. (If you say you’ll call Friday at at 8:00 p.m., be sure you call Friday at 8:00 p.m. — no matter what.) When everything in my life seemed upside down, having friends follow through on promises kept me anchored.
  • Invite interaction. (It doesn’t matter whether you ask your grieving friend over to play with your new holiday pet, meet for lunch, or take a walk around the block, as long as you act to include him or her.) I turned down far more invitations than I accepted, but I needed to hear each one — even those I wasn’t able to accept.
  • Think about your friend — and share that you’ve thought it! (Text, private message, email, write, call, or speak face-to-face to say, “You’re in my thoughts,” or “Thinking of you today.”) You may think it silly to send such simple words, but it’s not! Your message doesn’t have to be eloquent. Just heartfelt.