Belated Halloween Reprise

It’s Halloween night and my porch light is off. This year I didn’t pull decorations from storage bins, and the only candy I bought to share was for a social activity at church earlier in the week. I manned one of the kiddie games inside; praised the children for their cute, scary, princess-y, and clever costumes; and repeated, “Happy Halloween,” in response to their “Trunk or Treat!” greetings while chucking assorted sweets into their buckets, bags, and pillowcases.

I didn’t even dress up (beyond wearing a smoky orange Florida Writers Association T-shirt emblazoned with I love the smell of ink in the morning).

I wasn’t actively avoiding Halloween, but until a few minutes ago I hadn’t thought of why I’d ignored so much more of it this year than last year, which I wrote about in Beware of “Happy Halloween” and Other Hazardous Good Wishes.

Then I came across today’s HuffPost Healthy Living post by Megan Divine, “Halloween and Grief: When the Nightmare Is Real.”

READ IT. (Please.)

Take your grieving friends some favorite candy (or a healthier treat) to show you're thinking of them, but consider skipping the "Happy Halloween" greeting.

Take your grieving friends some favorite candy (or a healthier treat) to show you’re thinking of them, but consider skipping the “Happy Halloween” greeting.

Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 2, Religion

If you know me in person (or through my writing) I hope you’ll find this post title disconcerting. I hope you’ll think it seems downright odd for me to discourage would-be comforters from referring to religion as they console the bereaved, because I hope I’ve conveyed (in clear, though never in-your-face ways) how integral religion is to who I am.*

So in part 2 of Taboo Topics**, WHY in the heck do I insist you should not invoke religious topics when speaking to the bereaved?

Too many people spurt inconsiderate spiritual platitudes at mourners, reaching for the first handy sayings that come to mind.

Spraying spiritual platitudes on the bereaved is as effective in helping them as when inexperienced cooks spray water on grease fires — flames spread, burning a larger area.

Consider these brimstone-scattering thoughts as you approach your grieving friends:

  • Not all family members have the same religious views or attitudes. What offers comfort to one may deeply wound (or even offend) another.
  • Unresolved familial disagreements about faith-related matters may leave the bereaved feeling anxious or guilty. Pointing out those differences does not help.
  • No one fully knows any heart or soul but their own. Assumptions about the deceased’s “heavenward” status can cause mourners more pain than condolence.
    • Sometimes “outsiders” (even within a family) aren’t privy to all the circumstances of the departed one’s life (or death, or both). The deceased may have lived a praiseworthy public facade but presented an altogether different reality behind closed doors.Grief can be complicated for these survivors.
    • In cases where the deceased secretly (or openly) abused family members, feelings of relief may overshadow (or battle alongside) grief.
  • Survivors of suicide face offensive outbursts from people whose words can’t possibly be intended to console (“Suicide’s a sin, so your loved one’s going to hell”). Survivors also hear too many insensitive assumptions by those who may mean to console but who instead inflict more injury (“Don’t worry. God will forgive your loved one”). Never assume you know what prompted the suicide, and never make spiritual assumptions about it or about the survivors.
  • Avoid using these religious platitudes (and others like them):
    • “She’s gone home to God.”
    • “He’s in a better place.”
    • “You just have to trust in God’s will.”
    • “God needed him more than you do.”
    • “It was her time.”
    • “You’ll see him again.”
    • “It won’t be long before you see her again.”
    • “Heaven needed another angel.”
    • “Now you’ve got an angel in heaven watching over you.”

Remember, I’m not anti-religion. On the contrary. My faith has remained the one constant, the one source of comfort and sanity and security when the box of my life felt soaked in mud, ripped open, overturned, shaken out, and run over. Often I agreed with the sentiments of the platitudes (that he was in a better place, that I did trust in God’s will, that I knew I’d see him again…).

However, hearing them thrust upon me did not help. It felt like the people who said them wanted to cover up or erase my pain, as if it were a thing to be lightly brushed aside. What I needed was to have my loss acknowledged.

If you have an already established pastoral relationship with the bereaved, it may (as in it might possibly, but it might not necessarily) be appropriate to offer spiritual counsel, scriptural comfort, or doctrinal comments. But before you preach at your congregant, listen.

For everyone else who wishes to console a grieving friend, don’t bring religion into your condolences unless your grieving friend first invites you into the topic.

As in all aspects of grieving, LISTEN to the bereaved and follow their lead. IF your grieving friends express an interest in speaking of spiritual matters, by all means share your thoughts, but do so carefully and from your heart, not from the first trite words that come to mind.

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*I don’t say this to be preachy but to acknowledge the core of my survival during the most difficult part of my life. My reliance on God’s unwavering love and my faith in His absolute awareness of me (and my grieving children) is what kept me going when my soul was flayed raw with grief.

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**I talk about other taboo topics — politics, money, physical appearance, and legal status — in other posts.

Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 1, Politics

Some topics are off-limits when a friend is grieving. Do you remember the classic dinner conversation advice given to prospective business associates (or future in-laws)? “Never discuss politics, religion, or money.”  Keep this in mind as a starting point, but to support mourning friends I recommend expanding the list.

Unless the mourner asks you, or unless it pertains to your already established professional relationship, don’t bring up politics, religion, money, physical appearance, or legal status. 

The rest of this post tells why you shouldn’t bring up POLITICS.*

Keep in mind that no matter how devoted the bereaved (and/or the deceased) may have been to a cause in the past, the surviving loved ones’ world has changed. It doesn’t matter that you and your coworker may have made lively political debates as much a part of daily lunch breaks as clocking out and back in again. For your grieving friend, in the initial shock of new grief, community or state, national, and even global concerns may shift into a distant blur.

Grief’s omnipresence overwhelms other concerns. To the newly bereaved, issues of political concern aren’t spelled P-O-L-I-T-I-C-S; they’re spelled P–loss–O–grief–L–loss–I–grief–T–loss–I–grief–C–loss–S–grief. (If that seems hard for you to read, think about how hard it is for your grieving friend to live.)

Perhaps the deceased was actively involved in political processes (campaigning, debating, petitioning, running for office, or simply following the nuances of opposing parties’ claims). Survivors may feel impelled to take up their loved one’s unfinished work and step into their footsteps — or they may actively avoid the entire realm of politics. Such activities may be far too painful (“too close to home”) as they grieve and adjust. Persuading (or worse, guilt-tripping) mourners to step into (or out of) the political arena does them a disservice. No one representing a political cause (or party) has the right to claim what the deceased “would have wanted.” Ever.

On the other hand, some survivors may need to immerse themselves in political processes. Perhaps circumstances surrounding the death of their loved one could have been prevented had legislation, policy, or decision makers been different. Working and fighting for related changes can be therapeutic and can help grievers direct or channel their pain — not remove or heal it.

If your mourning friend approaches you, by all means listen! Offer to help if you see the point of the changes they want to make. However, if you disagree (and when it comes to political matters, even reasonable, like-minded people can have passionately divergent opinions!), now is not the time to argue or debate the issues with the bereaved. For the mourner, the politics and the emotions may be inseparable, so don’t go there.

My husband loved our country’s political process. He watched (and argued at) the televised debates. He was passionate (and a bit one-sided) about campaigns and platforms. One of the things he loved about me was that I took the time to study the issues on the ballots and the candidates running for office prior to every election. After his death, it took what felt like superhuman strength to do even the most superficial research and to decide issues. I could not (and still can’t) abide the rancor of the adversarial debates. It was (and still is) repellent. Yes, I know the issues are important, but the mud-slinging is too great a reminder that “life’s too short” for that much anger.

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*I’ll talk about the other taboo topics — religion, money, physical appearance, and legal status — in upcoming posts. (And yes, I appreciate the irony of talking about things you shouldn’t talk about.)