Don’t Speak Ill of the Dead

For centuries, social decency taught: “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” It should make obvious sense: Don’t complain to a widow that her late husband was a lout. Don’t shush crying, orphaned children that they’ll be better off without their neglectful parents. Don’t tell a bereaved father his son would have messed things up worse if he’d have lived.

Use caution if you're about to say something unkind about the deceased. You'll need to stop soon.

Use caution if you’re about to say something unkind about the deceased. You’ll need to stop soon. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Don’t say good riddance about the death of someone else’s dear one — even if you think it’s true.

Perhaps the widow mentioned above would be the first to agree her late husband was a lout. If so, it’s her right to say it — when and if she’s ready — not anyone else’s.

Perhaps orphaned children themselves, whatever their ages, recognize they’re better off forever freed from their parents’ neglectful (or even harmful) pseudo-care. If so, it’s their right to say it — when and if they’re ready — not anyone else’s*.

Perhaps the bereaved father himself will believe his son wouldn’t have amounted to anything. If so, it’s that father’s right to say it — when and if he’s ready — not anyone else’s.

It’s true one-on-one with people you know, and it’s true on a larger scale with people you know about.

When a public figure passes — celebrity, activist, politician, criminal, terrorist —  it’s easy (perhaps too easy) to jump onto social media and chime in. Oh, what a loss! The world will miss them! or, in the case of a person of infamy,  Oh, it’s about time. Too bad they didn’t go sooner

For the most part, these public figures chose to live in a way that made their comings, goings, achievements, or even atrocities matters of public record; those actions are open to public scrutiny. Their deaths, however, belong first and foremost to their families and closest friends. Private grief supersedes public accolades and animosity.

When someone famous dies, whether it was a person I admired or a person whose actions I loathed, my first thought is for their family and friends; they’ve lost someone important to them.

Speaking ill of the dead doesn’t harm the deceased, but it does inflict cruel, additional pain on their survivors.

Historians will sort the late heroes from villains. For the sake of their surviving friends and family, the rest of us should bite our tongues (or sit on our fingertips) if we’re tempted to say anything that’s neither consoling nor kind.



*Bereaved children should receive access to counseling with a licensed therapist who specializes in children’s grief. Adult caretakers should encourage kids to express their feelings without imposing adult judgement or views on the children’s perceptions.

Remembering 9/11 can help you understand the bereaved

On September 11, 2001, life in the United States skidded to a stop when nearly 3,000 people perished because of terrorist attacks. If you were the age of a young school child or older, you remember the moment you heard the news.







It was a few minutes after 9:00 a.m. when the phone rang. My friend’s voice was clipped. “Are you watching TV?”

My husband was sound asleep after his night shift. I’d taken our younger children to elementary school. Back at home I folded laundry while our oldest daughter painted on canvas. Soon we’d delve into the academic part of her seventh grade curriculum. My friend knew I homeschooled during the day, so it was odd she’d call, let alone assume the TV might be on during school hours. “No. Why?”

“Turn it on.”

“To what?”

“Anything. Any channel.”

Dismay. Shock. Denial. Distress. Panic. Fury.

I cried for those whose lives were lost. I cried harder for the loved ones who lost them.

It was a huge thing. A devastation.

A travesty. An assault.

A violation.

In the days that followed, the attacks were all anyone talked about — even when mentioning the heroics of the many, many selfless souls who stepped into the fray to help others.

None of us knew then the long-term impact of that day’s events. First responders from New York City’s police and fire departments, and others, continued losing life and health in the aftermath of the initial casualties.

(Casualties. What a calloused, indifferent word — as if any of those killed or maimed or bereaved came to that definition by casual, effortless chance.)

Families were shattered by death, disability, and despair. Businesses and livelihoods were lost along with the lives they’d once supported.

For those of us living far away, not personally knowing victims or their families, and not having our everyday routines disrupted beyond that first day’s screeching halt, we felt for them and we cried with them and we sacrificed and contributed for them. But our everyday life, for the most part, went on.

The impact of 9/11 changed us all, some more than others. Global news coverage and the scale of the tragedy made it difficult to ignore, and visible memorials and annual commemorations ensure we will never forget.

For those whose loved ones were lost, the personal impact of 9/11 is impossible to forget. Visual reminders of their absent loved ones are everywhere they look. Annual commemorations extend beyond Patriot Day on September 11 to include every holiday, birthday, anniversary, and seasonal tradition.

A decade and a half later, mourning survivors I’ve met since have “moved forward” with their lives. I won’t diminish their losses by claiming they “resumed” life in the same manner as those of us who were not personally impacted. Life, as it was Before, ended that day. Life, as they eventually learned how to live again, evolved slowly in the After.

Of course, other people died that day, too. People all around the world. One was Karl, a sweet, elderly man in my congregation at church. His death received no national fanfare. No acclaim. His kindly widow’s loss was overshadowed by the quantity of publicized loss, but Ruth’s private grief was just as real.

At the time I felt badly for her. I admired her courage and strength as she tearfully expressed her beautiful belief that her husband was needed in heaven to help soothe and greet the many souls who’d been taken from mortality that day. I prayed for her, and I told her I was praying for her, and I sent notes once in a while.

But I was clueless. I had no idea of what her loss meant to her. How could I? That was a decade before I shared the designation of widow. A decade before new bereavement taught me the private manifestations of receiving the news that another loved one was dead.

Dismay. Shock. Denial. Distress. Panic. Fury.

In the months that followed my husband’s death, coping with that was all I could think about, even though there were many selfless souls who reached out to me in compassionate gestures. But their everyday lives went on.

Now, whenever our nation pauses for a moment of silence to honor the victims and heroes of 9/11, my understanding of what they experienced remains fractional, but I am more aware than I was. I will never be able to fully understand what any of them endured. But I do know how I felt in my own dismay-shock-denial-distress-panic-fury grieving. And my empathy for them has grown.

(Ruth, I don’t know where you live now, but please know I think of you and Karl today, as I think of the thousands of others for whom September 11 has such significance.)

I remember.

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.