Most humans are no strangers to pain, and the older we get the more loved ones we have lost or nearly lost to accident, illness, self-inflicted injuries, and even (if we are very lucky) old age. Death has been a guarantee through the ages, and yet we still have no words, no language set aside for the devastation we feel when we have lost somebody we love. To accompany that lack, we have yet to manage to find or create words or language for when we are faced with somebody else’s devastation. It’s this second failure I would like to discuss here.
Death makes us selfish. Other people’s pain makes us selfish.
“Oh, no,” You are saying, right now. “No, I’m not selfish. I just wish there were something I could say or do to make it better.” Of course you do. You know why? Because it will make you feel better. If you knew what to say or do, it would ease the pain your loved ones are feeling, and thus ease your own pain. And no, I’m not calling you out, Gentle Reader, and I am not saying it is a conscious thing you are doing. I’m not saying it’s your primary goal, even. I’m just saying that it’s there.
Honestly, why do you think I’m writing this post right now? Tragedy struck the life of somebody I love and care about very much, and I would climb mountains, fight dragons, and raze cities to make her hurt a little bit less—but of course, I can’t make her feel better. So to make myself feel better, I’m gonna focus on something else for a minute: blogging.
Death and tragedy turn us into comfort-seeking missiles, and it can be incredibly difficult to change course. We want the comfort to be easily found, too—in answers to questions we should not be asking the recently bereaved, for example, and the search for some kind of explanation for the loss, something that will help us sleep at night. We want to feel in that moment that whatever happened could not possibly happen to us.
But while we are asking our questions, and trying to make sense of what happened (as if there is sense to be made), and trying to be comforting and aggressively supportive, and trying to direct the emotions of the bereaved in a direction that makes more sense to us, and wondering what flowers to get and what kind of casserole to make and what kind of whiskey to bring to the memorial service…? While we are doing that, the people we are asking and “comforting” are trying to fathom their loss, to understand how it is that there is somebody in their lives they can never call again, or see again, or be able to run to for love or comfort or silliness.
2012 has brought a soul-numbing amount of death, loss, and injury to my immediate and extended families. This is not my first experience with death and loss by any means. And I may not be an expert, but I’ve had a lot of practice this year. And this is what I have learned:
- There is NOTHING, NOTHING you can say that will lessen the grief in order to make the recently bereaved feel better. There is nothing you can say that can possibly mitigate the loss, nothing you can say that will bring them peace, soothe the wound, or fill the sudden gaping hole in their life, heart, family. Nothing. [ETA: Since people feel the need to tell me what people said to make them feel better: obviously mileage may vary. I mainly make this point in order to manage expectations: don’t think your words have more power than they do.]
- “I love you” and “I’m here for you” might not help, but they don’t hurt, either. Especially if you mean it.
- Asking the bereaved what happened, or why it happened, is criminally insensitive. You are basically requiring them to make sense out of something that may not yet make sense to them, and it’s not their responsibility to do that for you. If you fear being considered uncaring and genuinely want to know, try something along the lines of, “If you want to talk about it or tell me what happened, I am here for you, but I understand if you don’t.”
- It is unlikely that you are the bereaved’s first priority in the wake of recent loss. Come to terms with the fact that you may not always get a response to questions or expressions of love and support. Assume that your love and support is appreciated and be patient. It feels good to be wanted and needed, but what the bereaved is experiencing is not in any way about you, so don’t feel bad if you aren’t.
- You are not the only person offering comfort, hugs, love, time, talk, or a safe place to grieve. Related: it’s okay to hang back and let people who are closer to the bereaved do what they do. I have done that a lot this year, and it’s not because I don’t love the people who have lost. It’s because I do.
- The first weeks or months after loss are the most painful, but that doesn’t mean everything is suddenly better, or that the bereaved has stopped grieving just because the wound isn’t quite as raw after that. You may not have to face their grief, but it’s still there. They are still missing the person they lost, still reaching for their phone to text that person, still wanting to share whatever it is they shared with that person. Don’t stop showing them that you love them and that you are there for them. It doesn’t have to be specific to their loss. It just has to be real.
Consider these things before you approach somebody who has just lost somebody they love. You don’t have to have the right thing to do or say. You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to feel bad because you also want comfort and because there might be a selfish streak to how you want to handle things—hurting because somebody you love is hurting is not a bad thing. What you do have to be is loving, patient, available and always aware that it’s not about you.