100% of us will deal with death: our own, the death of someone we love, or a third party death—when someone we know has lost someone. I want to offer some advice on dealing with this uncomfortable topic of death by giving you 3 no’s and 2 yes’ to keep in mind.
Death is uncomfortable for everyone (not so much for the dead since they have already dealt with it in a big way,) particularly for those left behind, for whom it is distressing to say the very least. So, the first thing I want to tell you (this is not in the list of no’s and yes’) is an overall idea to keep in mind. Grief is maddening. When we lose someone we love we are literally in a state of shock that can last many months. For some grief can last over a year, if not longer.
What makes sense to you and what makes sense to the grieving is not the same thing. To use a bit of my geek credentials, it is as if you are Mr. Spock starring in an episode of “Dawson’s Creek.” They don’t speak Vulcan on Dawson’s Creek and logic won’t work when you are dealing with the insanity brought on by grief. Quit using it.
The 1st NO:
Don’t proselytize. Regardless of what you believe, this isn’t the time. Whether you are Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Agnostic or Atheist (or any other faith I didn’t mention here) — don’t try to sell me on a Smart Car when I am driving a Hummer of Pain. I can’t stop this vehicle, eventually it will run out of gas. Until then, ride with me and don’t be the passenger who knows a short cut, no one likes that passenger. All you will do to those in grief is make us feel worse in an already horrendous situation.
Two days after Chris, my partner, died, I woke and turned on the TV. Julia Sweeny was on and I love her one-woman shows. One show dealt with her brother’s cancer, another with the adoption of her daughter. On this show she spoke of the non-existence of God, which didn’t bother me, but she included her belief that when we die we just end. Like a man watching a train wreck, I couldn’t avert my eyes. She told me that Chris didn’t exist anymore and it was just luck that we found each other in the first place and I spent the next week yelling “DAMN YOU JULIA SWEENY!”
A friend who is an avowed atheist called me and told me to be happy that Chris still exists in my brain. I listened and flipped him off on my side of the phone. A relative called and spewed forth catholic dogma like Linda Blair did pea soup in the Exorcist. She got flipped off as well. Keep your beliefs to yourself.
There may come a time when you are asked what you think by those of us in grief and by all means be honest. But wait until you are asked. When I was ready, I asked a few close friends what they thought about death and what comes next. This conversation was healing instead of overwhelming because I came to it in my own time and terms.
The 2nd NO:
Don’t try to make us feel lucky. No “at least” statements. “At least the suffering is over.” Really? Do you see me here? Do I look like the suffering is over? Now it is obvious to all logical beings that you are talking about the suffering of the person who died – but you are not on the Enterprise talking to Mr. Spock. You are on Dawson’s creek talking with Pacey (who is not an overly logical character).
What people told me was “at least you knew it was coming, you were better prepared than most.” What? Lets imagine that I told any guy that in 6 months I am going to give you a swift kick to a very tender spot but you aren’t allowed to put on a cup, or do anything to stop this action from happening. When the time comes and I kick you, even though you knew it was coming, you will still be doubled over on the floor in pain. All the foreknowledge did was give you more time to fill with dread.
I know Chris, my partner, isn’t in pain anymore and I am grateful. At the same time, there have been days when I would have given almost anything to be able to wake up in the morning and change his colostomy, watch him sleep and hold his hand.
The 3rd NO:
Don’t say “I understand.” You don’t. Each loss is a personal loss. Every pain is a private pain. You don’t know what has changed for us. You don’t know what dreams have died what plans are up in smoke, or the future we’ve lost. You don’t know. You devalue our pain by saying it is your pain. It isn’t.
The fact that your dog Fluffy (or your grandmother, or the neighbor, or someone in school—anyone else at all really—died when you were twelve (or 20, or last year) is not relevant now. I don’t mean to minimize your loss, I still think about my cat, Tuesday, that died several years ago. He was a GREAT cat (it not the best cat in the history of existence), but right now, this isn’t about you or your loss.
The 1st YES:
Just say “ I am so sorry.” You can dress it up by adding “for your loss’ or throwing in a “very.” But that statement says everything you need to convey to us. This works for most every person in grief. Our minds are chattering away about how miserable the world is so the less you say the more likely some of it will make it through the cacophony.
The 2nd YES
Don’t say anything. This is for the brave among you. Sit next to us. Hold our hand, put your arm around our shoulders and let us cry. Give us a safe place, because the rest of the world isn’t safe right now. Do this and I promise you one thing, you have given us a moment’s solace we never thought we could find again.
By the way no offense was intended to Dawson’s Creek. I happen to be a fan of the show.
You can find my all my Day of the Dead Art at FrenzyArt.com.