Monday, June 17, 2013

What not to say when someone dies, Part II

When someone is telling you about a death in the family, or when you're at a wake or a funeral, try not to let your personal feelings about death get in the way. The friends and family of a bereaved person often see the death as a horrifying thing and make considerable efforts to comfort the bereaved. That's not always necessary. Sometimes the bereaved has already done their mourning and doesn't need to plunge back into sadness.

Friends and family often remember their own experiences with death and assume the bereaved is going through the same thing. It's safe to assume they're not or at least not in the same way. Hearing about the death of someone's father, for instance, might bring up your grief and sorrow about your father's death. Express that somewhere else. It doesn't belong in the face of the bereaved who might or might not feel similarly.

Say little. Listen. Put your past experiences about death aside and try to give the bereaved what they need. This can be very difficult if what the bereaved needs is the opposite of what you would need. Maybe you'd need a hug or a drink, but they don't. Maybe you like to think about heaven, but they don't believe in it. Maybe they need to acknowledge that the dead person wasn't the best person in the world, which you would never do. This is especially not the time to try to convince the bereaved of your religious or spiritual beliefs. Saying that the dead person will always be with us doesn't sound equally comforting to everyone. Tune in to what the bereaved needs and don't start teaching, even if your pitch is about Buddhism or B'hai or other seemingly current, inoffensive beliefs.

(If the bereaved is an atheist, please don't talk about God or the Universe or anything like that. That stuff makes the speaker feel better, not the bereaved.)

What I'm suggesting is difficult. It requires putting aside your standard mourning responses and your canned I'm sorry's. The best strategy is to stick to questions and then actually listen to the answers. Start by asking, "How are you?" This is a particularly good way to start if the bereaved had a complicated relationship with the dead person. You might ask, "What do you need right now?" Or you might ask how other family members are doing. Use open ended questions to let the bereaved guide the conversation. Let them share what they need to share. Or not.

If all you can think of to say are platitudes, personal stories and what you believe about "the Afterlife," just spend a moment with them in silence. Feel free to end the encounter by saying, "I'm thinking of you," and move away. Chances are, they're ready for you to move away.

Part I of this series is here.


Dave Hildebrandt said...

Word. Make a difference by listening.

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

Thank you, Dave. Many of my friends have read this post and my attitude really seems to piss some people off, as would be expected. What I'm asking is very, very hard: to put someone else's needs before your own.

Andria Anderson said...

I've had greiving people respond poorly to those questions, too. "How are you?" sparked a, "Well, how COULD I be doing???" or "Just how would you EXPECT I'm doing???"

"What do you need now?" has gotten "What no one can give me," and blank confused stares that seemed to say, "What? You want ME to give answers here???"

Maybe there's just nothing "right" to ever say? It's just a sucky time to live through. Your suggestion of silent companionship may be the best we can ever do.

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

People who say "How would you expect I'm doing?" are assuming a lot. They might be the same people who use phrases like "Use your best judgment."