Saturday, July 6, 2013

What To Say

I never used to know what to say to a grieving or hurting person.  I was too afraid that anything I might come up with would do more harm than good.  It seems I wasn't alone in my dilemma.  Many people feel the same way, and their caution and uncertainty is warranted.  It's incredibly easy to say the wrong thing.  I have had my fair share of "I can't believe I'm sitting here listening to this" moments.  And I'm not the only one.  Just last week, a young widow told me that two days after her husband committed suicide, a guy felt the need to give her a lecture on the importance of gun control.  Don't be that guy.  Here are some tips on what to say and do, gleaned from my own personal experience, conversations I've had with others, and things I've read.
  • The less said, the better.  Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, summed it up this way:  "Show up and shut up."  It's hard to do that.  If we feel the need to show up, we feel the need to talk.  While my experience has been that grieving people definitely need company, they are much less helped by words, particularly in the early days and months.  
  • Avoid cheering them up.  Timing is important when we speak.  Cheerful encouragement in the midst of intense grieving is kind of like a cymbal crash at the wrong point in a symphony.  It's bad.  This applies to Bible verses too.  They're all good, they're all inspired, but "played" at the wrong moment, they can come across as cruel ironies.  (I'll give one specific example- completely free of charge- Jeremiah 29:11.  The Lord's plans to give a "future and a hope" don't really seem to apply when somebody dies, do they?  Save that one for graduation.)
  • Be there.  What I've just said might tempt you to just stay away.  But don't!  It's good for grieving people to have others around.  Hang out.  Be available.  LISTEN, but keep your words few.  After his wife died, CS Lewis said, "I want the others to be about me.  I dread the moments when the house is empty.  If only they would talk to one another and not to me."  (A Grief Observed, 1961)  Head over with some friends and talk among yourselves.  I'll be forever grateful to the friends who came over with their kids during Bryan's last week so that my kids would have other little ones to play with. I know that was a tough assignment for them to accept, but they did it with grace, and I don't know what we would have done without them.
  • Give some space.  As much as it helps to have a houseful of people around in the early days, it's important for the person to have some private space to withdraw to.  He might retreat to the bedroom for a few minutes, and then reemerge.  It's challenging to be present and yet hang back at the same time, but that's the type of sensitivity that's called for.  Friends who can strike this balance are pure gold in the tough times.
  • Find comfort for your own grief.  When someone you care about is in a dark valley, chances are good that you may be hurting too.  Perhaps it was a death that touched you too, or maybe it's a divorce or a job loss that makes you feel insecure about your own life.  You may need help dealing with your feelings.  I know I spent time comforting and calming others after Bryan died and even during his final week, and others who are in the middle of a storm have had the same experience.  We can play the role of comforter because of the special grace we've been given, but it can nevertheless be exhausting.  Talk to other friends and family.  Go to your pastor.  Life's battles affect us all.
  • Remember that you don't know what it's like.  We've all had tough times.  We've all lost loved ones.  The main lesson we should all take from that is that grieving is a deeply individual process.  Every little variable gets magnified.  Unless your situation really is stunningly similar, don't try too hard to establish commonality.  Losing a father is different than losing a husband is different than losing a child, and even within all of those categories, the manner of death and the nature of the relationship is going to make things different.  You can't comprehend someone else's grief any more than you can understand someone else's nightmare.
  • Go easy on the books.  I have found that those of us who have lost loved ones share a joke: the stack of books on our nightstands that well-meaning friends have given us.  And depending on the fad of the moment, we probably have multiple copies of some books.  Books are helpful, but it's hard to say which ones are actually going to be the helpful ones.  If you must give a book, I'd recommend going for something that's stood the test of time.  You've noticed that I personally liked A Grief Observed because I'm a CS Lewis fan and the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Jane Eyre.  (Reading stories of epic struggles by authors with a keen understanding of the human heart is far more beneficial to me than any pop psychology volume.)  Elisabeth Elliot has some great books as well.  And no, those weren't the books people bought me.  I'll admit to being quirky in this regard, but from what I've heard from other grieving people, the book deluge is usually unnecessary.  
  • Cards are great.  Getting a card with a little "I'm praying for you" note is very refreshing during any of life's difficulties.  The great thing about a card is that it conveys sympathy, but it doesn't intrude.  I tended to set the cards aside when they came in the mail and opened them a couple of times a week.  They were a nice encouragement, and opening them in batches allowed me to choose when I wanted to "hear" what my friends and family had to say and react in privacy. 
  • Share your memories.  If it's a death and the person who died touched you in some way, definitely bring it up, either in a card or in person.  It's encouraging to know that a loved one will be remembered fondly.
As time goes forward, needs change.  Life has to go on, but it's much more difficult than it seems to move forward.  In some ways, support from friends becomes even more important as the early days give way to weeks and months.  Here are a few more tips for that period:
  • Assess what the person needs.  It might be good to just ask.  My experience tells me that asking, "What do you need?" will probably be met with, "I don't know," or, "I think I'm okay."  One's brain is so fuzzy for such a long time in these situations.  It's better to consider the person's life and roles (mom, grandma, employee) and ask specific questions.  "I'd like to take your kids to soccer next week if they're going.  What time should I pick them up?"  People can always say no, but it really helps to know that help is available if needed.
  • Keep checking in.  Depending on the severity of the situation, long term help and emotional support might be important.  Help six months out can sometimes be even more precious than help six days out.  It's a real encouragement to know you haven't been forgotten.
  • Ask around.  If you're part of the person's circle of friends, ask around to see who's keeping in touch as time passes.  If everyone thinks someone else is, check with the person to make sure that support is staying strong.
  • Don't complain.  There's seems to be a general consensus among grieving people that hearing other people complain about what they have (spouse, children, job) is pretty maddening.  Widows don't really care that your husband's snoring kept you awake, and moms who've lost children would give anything to deal with that two year old tantrum that you found so annoying.  And if you do slip up and complain, take the sarcastic comment you might get with a little humility.  It might be a good reminder to be thankful even in the midst of life's little hassles.
  • Never, ever, ever corner the person at a social event.  It takes a herculean effort to force oneself out of the house and into "normal" life.  If you bring up the situation when everyone's trying to act "normal," you risk making that poor person wish she'd never left the house. CS Lewis bemoaned the fact that he had become in his widowhood "an embarrassment" to everyone he met.  He'd watch his friends and colleagues "trying to make up their minds whether they'll 'say something about it or not.'"  Then, he wondered if, perhaps, "the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers."  (A Grief Observed, 1961)  Let's not make things worse by making sad people feel like they have a disease.
  • Let the person bring it up.  You may find that you become the confidant, you may not.  Just let the one doing the grieving decide and follow his lead.
  • Ask someone who's been there.  If you know someone who's been in a similar situation, they probably would be able to give specific advice on what might be helpful.  They'll remember what people did for them, and they'll have the added benefit of hindsight to help them know what might be welcome.
  • Pray.  Not only does prayer carry with it the power of healing grief, it can also give you the guidance of the Holy Spirit on what to say and what to do.
Finally, from all of us who have gone through tough times: Thank you!  It's the encouragement and support of  our friends and family that keeps us going.  I have been blessed by an amazing bunch of supportive and helpful individuals, and when I hear that someone's hurting, my first thought, my first question, my first prayer, is that they will be surrounded by friends as wonderful as mine.

If you're experiencing loss or difficulty right now, feel free to email me: aimee(at)hillcountryvillage(dot)com.  I promise not to talk about gun control.

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