“What happened?” Or the dreaded alternative, “How did he die?” These are the questions I have come to shrink from in the days and weeks since the death of my 35 year old son –in-law. I can only imagine how my daughter feels (now a 30 year old widow with 3 little ones under the age of 6 and all on the autism spectrum), when approached by sincere and I’m sure, well-intentioned people with these same questions.
I found out at church I’m not a very gracious griever. I was approached more than once and asked one of these questions. I felt like a trapped animal with no escape in sight. Neither answer I gave was satisfactory, either to them or me. I still haven’t figured out how to ‘do’ deeply personal loss in public right, and haven’t had the heart to check Pinterest for ideas.
“Why do you want to know?” caused a bit of stammering, but a quick re-wording by her brought us back to the same place. “He was so young, what happened?”
*sigh* “His heart stopped.”
An audible gasp with a flash of shock made me realize I’d given the impression he’d had a heart attack. I didn’t want to answer. I didn’t want to feel like I had to answer. I tried again, to clarify without really answering, “That’s what happens when people die. Their heart stops.”
Still unsatisfactory. This stilted conversation, no doubt intended to convey concern and compassion, only made me feel more alone.
We all have heard, at one time or another, about the stages of grief. We know to expect denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We can read ad infinitum appropriate things to say or do when called upon to express a surprisingly awkward acknowledgement of someone else’s grief. And yet, asking ‘how’ seems to have slipped through the cracks of death decorum.
I know I have done the same thing. People are curious. I get it, I’m a curious person, too. For some reason, it’s not enough to know a tragedy has happened. We want details. Maybe we feel subconsciously this will ‘connect’ us with the mourner. Or maybe the raw details feed our primitive need to feel the reassuring relief that it’s not ‘us’ or ‘ours’. I wonder, though, how many times have I unknowingly magnified someone’s grief by asking one of these simple questions?
Since our own personal tragedy, I’ve been rethinking how I approach someone who has been devastated by the loss, expected or not, of a loved one. In an effort to help others avoid making the same mistake, and as a PSA for those mourning and just-trying-to-make-it-through-the-day souls, I’ve come up with three ideas. I hope these will remind us all of another way we can show sincere care and compassion for the newly bereaved.
It’s okay not to know what to say and if that’s the case, say nothing.
One of the most touching gestures I’ve received in the last few weeks was the hand on my shoulder as I settled into my pew at church. I looked back and saw the face of an elderly woman, with intense eyes. She didn’t say a word, but I knew in that moment she knew and that she cared. Not a word, but I could feel her concern. I’m going to remember how this tender acknowledgement of my pain made me feel and try to offer that gift to others.
Being curious is natural, but at this emotionally intense time, it’s not about you.
In the light of day, when no death is imminent, can any of us honestly picture asking this question in good conscience? We simply don’t know if the burden of grief feels infinitely more intense because murder or suicide, accidental overdose or a fatal error in judgement by the deceased or someone else involved caused the untimely demise. Err on the side of caution and compassion and focus on the mourner’s feelings, not your own.
Grieving family members may not want to confide in you, and that’s ok.
If you have not been included among the inner circle privy to details, you need to respectfully consider a couple of possible reasons. It could be that you are not considered close enough to warrant that type of confidence. It may be those who are suffering through a loss may not feel ‘safe’ to share. Reluctance to trust us with intensely personal information may come from a fear of it being treated as common neighborhood gossip to a deep-in-the-core desire to be loyal and protect the deceased. We may feel like it’s our business, but unless offered, patience would be well advised. Putting someone who is already mourning in that position can not only intensify their pain but may well compromise your relationship for years to come. These are the moments that embed themselves in one’s memory.
The very nature of life itself includes death and we will all assume the role, sooner or later, of comforter and mourner. And we will all face the same tragic awkwardness in each role. Now you know how.
~Selena Pannell, co-author of 3,000 Miles To Eternity: A True Internet Love Story