Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 4, Appearance

Grief is more than an emotional response to bereavement. Grieving impacts every aspect of mourners’ lives — including body systems — in ways they shouldn’t be pressed to discuss. Avoid personal comments about the appearances of mourning friends.* Even if you have a professional, looks-related relationship (as a dermatologist, hairdresser, personal trainer …), or even if the bereaved asks your opinion, guard your tongue. Comments on visible physical symptoms of my loss only deepened my distress.

Stop and think before making personal comments on mourners' appearances

Stop and think before making personal comments on mourners’ appearances

Avoid “about face” comments.

I’ve always been suntan-challenged, but as a new widow I looked paler than usual. I didn’t benefit from others pointing it out. In shock for weeks (months, really), I was oxygen-deprived from improper, incomplete breathing.  I’d taken only shallow breaths — for weeks. It took conscious effort to fill my lungs. Most people grieving new loss forget to breathe fully. An acupuncturist friend, Natalie Doliner, taught me that in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) the lungs are recognized as “organs of grief.”

My skin went crazy. Within days after my husband’s death, my face started shedding. I looked as if I’d suffered a colorless, peeling sunburn. Self-conscious, I preferred not to be seen in public. When I ventured outside, comments like “Do you know you’re peeling?” sent me back into my shell.

My hands, arms, and legs bore scratches, scrapes, and bruises, though in new grief’s fog I seldom noticed what I’d run into or how I’d cut myself. It was helpful to hear “Excuse me, do you know you’re bleeding?” It was never helpful to hear “Wow, what happened to your arms?” I didn’t know.

Avoid “tiresome” reminders of exhaustion.

I never appreciated comments about dark circles beneath (or bloodshot veins in) my eyes. I already knew I looked tired! Hearing “You should get more sleep” didn’t prevent grief-related nightmares from jolting me awake (on the rare occasions grief insomnia allowed me to sleep at all). Such comments felt like unjust scolding and reminded me there was too much empty space in my bed.

Avoid mentioning “weighty matters,” either gained or lost. 

Mourners won’t tell you embarrassing ways grief impacts digestion — and they shouldn’t have to. I hated explaining (as diplomatically as I could), “I can’t keep anything down,” or “Everything I eat rushes out the other end.” Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea (I later learned) are common in bereavement. Mourners shouldn’t have to justify why they do (or don’t) want to eat or how that impacts their appearance. 

This should be obvious (but my experiences proved otherwise): I didn’t appreciate reminders that I’d lost or gained weight while grieving. Unless mourners mention their weight to you (and perhaps even then), keep weight-related observations and opinions to yourself. 

I lost more than 20 pounds in a few weeks as a new widow, more than 30 in a few months, but it certainly wasn’t a healthy (or sustainable) way to lose weight! I despised everything about the grief-induced “death diet” inflicted on me, including well-intended reminders about how “good” I looked because of it. Over and over I endured conversations like this:

“Wow, you look great! How’d you lose so much weight?”
“Umm … I forgot to eat.”  Or couldn’t keep it down …
“No, really. How’d you find the willpower? I’d kill to lose that much.” [Yes, someone said that.]
“My husband died.”
“Oh … [insert awkward pause and/or dismissive shrug] Well, at least you look good.”

There was nothing “helpful” about being urged to eat more when I had no appetite — or to eat less when my appetite resurfaced with a vengeance that was (pardon the pun) “fed” by grief. Within months I gained double the amount I’d lost. It took a full year of hard work to reach a zero net weight change before I began moving toward a healthier range.

Picture the whole person before you click.

I still seethe over one  against-my-protest  snapshot taken during my first year as a widow. It wasn’t about my bad hair day or ill-fitting outfit (though if it had been, even those concerns should have warranted better respect). It was about the PAIN of LOSS I saw EVERY time I couldn’t avoid a mirror. My eyes reflected bereavement, and (like people who believe cameras steal souls) I felt that shutter sever my gossamer connection to my surroundings that day — and (even though I’ve long-since forgiven the snapshot-taker, sort of) I still feel the reverberations of that click. If mourners balk at having pictures taken (of themselves or the deceased), LISTEN — and honor their requests! 

When it comes to personal comments about bereaved friends’ appearances, “no comment” is the best option.  Instead say, “It’s good to see you,” and leave it at that.

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

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.)