Someone has died. Perhaps the hardest words to get right are the ones that must be said or written to their beloveds. In fact, we can never get these words right, because they won’t make the pain go away.
After my daughter’s death, going to the grocery store was no easier than standing naked on a pedestal on the plaza would have been. The eyes of strangers drew blood. I was hyper-aware of everyone and it seemed that most everyone—if they already knew—was hyper-aware of me. Mothers, especially, zipped around corners out of sight too often to be coincidental, as if my daughter’s death were contagious.
No one knew what to say, least of all me. The first few times I was asked, “Annie, how are you?” and blurted out that my daughter had taken her own life, it was as if I had punched the person in the belly. I learned to soften my words—“She was depressed. She became suicidal.” I watched people guess what I was about to say and prepare themselves.
I felt like a pariah when someone said absolutely nothing when told or, literally, backed away. If someone responded with a flat, “Sorry for your loss,” I felt closed out.
Yet when a woman I knew slightly leaned back against a shelf with a sense that she had all afternoon to listen and asked me, “How are you doing?” I closed her out with a curt, “Pretty well, thanks, and you?” I was impossible to please in those early months, because the wound always remained.
One day I ran into the friend of a friend. We small-talked until that challenging moment when she asked what was happening in my life. I told her gradually. Her eyes widened and welled. Looking shocked, she whispered, “I don’t know what to say.” And—this was key—she did not look away. She was so authentic my heart sprang open. I watched her processing before she continued. Her words, “I am so sorry. How are you doing with it?” were not special, but they were embedded with a level of presence that bathed me like warm oil. We spoke for a long time. I neither pretended to be all right nor broke down.
Our words can be simple if we allow them to arise without censorship. This woman was not afraid to express her natural response or to give herself time to deal with her own emotions. Because she was present with herself, she could be present with me and we could connect. Of course, there was timing too; I was in the right place to be authentic with her.
The timing of nearly all deaths disturbs, with the young, even more so. But our current cultural practices teach us that death is the enemy. We struggle to extend life at nearly any cost. We whisk bodies away to funeral homes as if they were too ugly to look upon until coiffed and made up. We are tongue-tied in the presence of grief and the bereaved. I respect words beyond measure, but I understand their limitations.
Perhaps the most significant action in the face of a person in grief is to feel our own pain and fears and to let this shine through our eyes and to allow our words to be the feeble and limited expressions they are. It is our body language, the looks on our faces and in our eyes that matter.
Saying the wrong thing may be less important than trying too hard to say the right thing.
The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil. To be released October 6, 2017. Watch for pre-ordering in July.
Hi Anne, it was good to read this. After her father committed suicide, my daughter was enraged by every single person’s response. It’s true that people have a much harder time responding to a death by suicide than to any other, but it’s also true that the people responding to my daughter’s loss were trying, however awkwardly, to convey their sorrow for her and her father. It took her a very long time to be able to let any of the actual sorrow in — able only to focus on what was terribly wrong with each response. That rage she felt about people’s comments was a big part of her grieving process.
Sandra, What you say adds so much to the dialogue on grief and grieving, letting us know how complex our responses can be either when we are grieving, or when we’re trying, “however awkwardly”, to convey our sorrow. As you point out so well, whatever the emotion it is all part of the grieving process.