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.
*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.)