Avoid Blaming or Shaming Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One

This post topic may seem obvious. After all, who would be so cruel as to dump blame or shame onto someone who is grieving? Unfortunately, it happens. Whether by deliberate intent or unwitting ignorance, it piles deeper distress upon those already experiencing the worst moments of their lives.Shame smiley blackground

Intentional blame is easiest to recognize and, sadly, is most often inflicted by another loved one. (Generosity requires I attribute such meanness to being overwrought by grief.) Intentional shaming and blaming  is accusatory and attempts to “punish” the bereaved or the deceased. It can be based in logic or completely without foundation.

“If you’d fed her the right way, she’d have never gotten sick.”
“If he’d been behind the wheel then he’d still be here; we should be burying you instead.”
“She’d have never gotten sick if you hadn’t taken that job.”
“He was healthy as a horse until he met you.”
“She’d still be with us if she hadn’t been such a lousy housekeeper.”

Unwitting or accidental blame is harder to recognize and, for the most part, is ascribed by well-meaning  but thoughtless friends, coworkers, and family.  It usually takes the shape of questions meant to better inform the would-be comforter. It can also be stated in misguided attempts to show “understanding.”

“Why didn’t you take him to the doctor at the first sign of trouble?” (Implies: if you had taken him then, he’d be fine now.)
“How come you sent her to that store that night?” (Implies: if you hadn’t sent her, she’d be fine.)
“Don’t you know CPR? So why’d he die?” (Implies: knowing CPR would have meant he’d survive.)
“If it had been my little one, I’d have found another doctor.” (Implies: mourner “should” have known more/better/different treatment was needed.)
“I’m glad I made my teenager take a defensive driving class.” (Implies: if you’d made yours take the class they’d still be okay.)

Questions and statements such as these only make the bereaved feel worse.  By stopping to think of the hidden implications of questions and comments you make to someone whose loved one has died, you can guard against unintentionally inflicting deeper pain.

(For anyone who has already willingly assaulted survivors with accusations, please reconsider. Apologies can mend some wounds, including your own.)

Happy Thanks-Grieving: Grief-Enhanced Gratitude

Wait! I promise this won’t be morose.

Growing up, I thought my mother coined the phrase “attitude of gratitude.” After a rough day at school, she’d hug me and listen to every ranting word. She let me go on (and on) until I’d vented my frustrations. But then … (I’m smiling and shaking my head at my little-girl-self as I type this …) Then Mom always (and I mean always) said, “Now tell me three good things that happened.” She’d sit beside me, with patient stillness, until I’d squeezed three good things from my heart through my (sometimes clenched) reluctant lips.

As much as I wanted her consolation, there were some days I stifled my complaints just so I wouldn’t have to acknowledge “three good things.”

I’ve heard it said that you can’t feel badly while expressing gratitude, but through grief I’ve found that isn’t so. After Mom died, I felt simultaneous, deep gratitude for the time I spent with her — and despondency that there was no more time together. I felt grateful, humble joy that (of all the women on the planet) she was my mother — but I lamented over how few my almost-eight- and three-year-old daughters’ memories of their grandma would be and that my yet-unborn third child would not know her at all. I thanked heaven aloud and in my heart that Mom no longer suffered the indignities of cancer’s claws — while I sobbed over the gaping absence of her presence in our lives.

Gratitude and Grief (which runs deeper than “sadness”) walked beside me, both holding my hands.

A few hours after my husband’s sudden death, in the awful stillness that was yet hours ahead of dawn, on the darkest night of my existence, I opened a spiral notebook and began to write. That content is too personal, too sacred to share, but on those pages (starting, inexplicably, on the last page and working my way forward) I listed blessings, all the things I had to be thankful for, all “the good things” in my life. Doing so brought me forward into that day’s light.

In the hours, days, weeks, months, and years that followed, those grateful truths have played a key role in my efforts to move forward through each day. Whether I spoke my grateful truths aloud, wrote them in my journal, or offered them in silent prayer, each soothed my aching a little more as I sent them out from the core of my soul. However, like so much of “recovery” from grief, their effective balm only worked applied in one direction. When others told me the same things, the same ideas rankled worse than driving the wrong way over the tire-piercing spikes in a parking lot exit.

So please, please, don’t tell the bereaved what they have to be grateful for, unless they ask you to.

three good holiday candle things-min

Sharing three good things about a deceased loved one can be cathartic, but being told to be grateful can hurt mourners more. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

As you comfort your friends through their grief this Thanksgiving, remember to listen with patient stillness. Let your grieving friends rant and vent. Then, after calm returns, gently invite them to share “three good things” from memories of their loved ones.

I think they’ll be grateful you asked.

***

Note:

I’d already begun drafting this post when I discovered the following article, geared more for the bereaved themselves than for those offering them your support. If you’re trying to understand what to say and do to help console grieving friends, family, classmates or coworkers, read it for yourself. Consider passing it along to them.

Megan Devine offers practical advice  to those experiencing their first holiday season without a loved one: “The grieving introvert + the holiday season: a different survival guide.”

To Comfort the Bereaved, Give Hugs–But Ask First!

Offer hugs, but ASK before embracing.

In the first year after my husband died, sometimes I needed — but sometimes I couldn’t stand — hugs. The one person I most wanted to hug me was no longer around — and never would be again. I didn’t want “substitutes.”

There were times our daughters didn’t “feel like” hugs, either, and although my arms ached to offer them a mother’s comforting embrace, I learned they each needed to grieve their father on their own terms and in their own ways.

Most days, though, I accepted and found strength in other women’s hugs, especially from widows. (Their silent squeezes conveyed I understand better than words.) I found solace in my male relatives’ hugs, too. We’ve always been a “huggy” family on both sides, so sharing their (often wordless, occasionally bear-like) embraces felt familiar and comforting.

However, I did not, repeat, did not enjoy hugs from male friends and acquaintances, not even a little bit in the first year … or two. Maybe I was overly sensitive. Maybe not. For me, when I made my marriage vows 24 years earlier, I took the “forsake all others” portion to heart, hands, and arms. My husband was the man I hugged — the only man I hugged — other than kin (and a very few close-as-kin-to-us-both friends), because that was what I chose. That was one way I honored him — and our vows.

I wasn’t in the habit of hugging other men when my husband stepped from the room or went away on a trip. Why, after death took him “away,” would I suddenly do so? I still felt the same connection and commitment to him — and to our vows. To me, hugging other men after he died felt as “wrong”  as it would have felt while he lived.

However, for many widowed friends, hugs from friends of the opposite sex helped! Such hugs made them feel better connected to their late spouses. The hugs that disconcerted me brought them a semblance of peace.

These days, three years into widowhood, I’m no longer raw with the shock and newness of my loss. I willingly accept and return (almost all) embraces.

I even initiate hugs — but I ask first, unless I’m offering virtual (((hugs))) like these.

(((Hugs))) to you for reaching out to your grieving friends, coworkers, and family members.

Typhoons, Tornadoes, and Other Disasters Wreak Havoc on Individuals

Typhoons. Tornadoes. Terrorism. Turmoil. Large-scale disasters all, impacting dozens, hundreds, thousands of souls.

Life-shattering, publicly viewed, world-watched tragedies, displaying agonies of individuals: children, wives, husbands, parents, siblings, relatives, friends.

Fragmented sentences, fragmented lives.

I admit, I seldom watch the news. Not anymore. Not since my husband’s death.

It’s not that I don’t want to be informed. I do. But I’m now expertly informed in the one area the glowing rectangle cannot convey, no matter how eloquent its writers, nor inspired its photographers, nor supernal its composers, nor gifted its news gatherers and broadcasters may be:

I know how grief feels.

And when I see the shocked, huddled faces of survivors’ physical pain and discomfort …

And when I see the decimated rubble  of one-time homes, hospitals, and houses of worship…

And when I see the eyes of those whose loved ones are no more…

…I see their grief, their public grief,
and I feel a degree of it.
I remember the excruciating feel of
my own, private anguish.

Large-scale grief-events require large-scale generosity and cooperation (to rebuild community infrastructure and provide day-to-day resources for residents to live on). They also require one-on-one generosity and compassion (to refashion–not rebuild–individual survivors’ lives).

Please, as much as you are able, help.

Image from the Children's Grief Awareness Day Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=346620602055569&set=a.121173784600253.18290.121173094600322&type=1&theater)

Blue butterfly image from the Children’s Grief Awareness Day Facebook page

Donate time, money, or expertise. Give a little or give a lot, but please also give from your heart. Though emergencies have an impact on everyone, with Children’s Grief Awareness Day coming this week, please consider the affected children’s needs, too. Already grieving children (and parents) not directly touched by today’s tragedies will nevertheless feel for–and with–those who are.

You Shouldn’t Say “You Should”

When you want to  help someone whose friend, relative, or coworker has died, avoid saying “you should” or “you shouldn’t.”

Grieving is some of the hardest work people ever undertake — perhaps the hardest. When the loss is new and raw, when bereaved parents  or widowed spouses or parentless children face the realities of never seeing loved ones again, the pain is beyond description. In the grief-laden, foggy-minded months after my husband’s death, someone told me the human brain doesn’t have the capacity to imagine that kind of pain. Though I still can’t remember the context (whether written or spoken) nor who said it, the accuracy of the assertion burned itself into my core.

Grief doesn’t affect mourners 24/7; it lurks 48 hours a day, 14 days per week. (Whether “the math” agrees or not, that is how it feels.) Grief doesn’t visit the homes or workplaces of those who have lost; without permission it becomes an unwelcome squatter inside the cells and hearts of the bereaved. It tosses beloved furnishings out onto rainy streets while arranging its own dark goods in every corner of memory and thought.

Already facing such life-altering changes, the bereaved don’t deserve to be told they “should” or “shouldn’t” … anything.

Don’t say, “You should be…” or “You shouldn’t be…”
Don’t say, “You should feel” or “You shouldn’t feel…”
Don’t say, “You should already…” or “You shouldn’t yet…”
Don’t say, “You should have…” or “You shouldn’t have…”

Instead of helping, these and other shoulds and shouldn’ts send the bereaved the message they are not grieving the “right” way, that their best efforts are inadequate, that those best efforts fall short.

Telling the bereaved what they should or shouldn’t do (unless you’re a professional whose advice they are seeking) is like whipping a horse with a broken leg because it refuses to run — pointless and cruel.