“What should I say?”
Don’t we all have a hollow stomach when it comes time to write a note or make a phone call to a friend who has experienced the death of a loved one? It is awkward and difficult and uncomfortable. Often we try to write what makes us feel better and miss the opportunity to be a true comfort to the bereaved.
1. I think the most common mistake we make is to gloss over the loss and go straight to the hope of the future, i.e. “I’m so sorry you lost your son in Iraq, but what a joy that you will see him again in heaven.” There is a time to every purpose under heaven, and that includes a time to mourn. We need to allow time to process the loss, time to cry every tear in our body out, time to pull the blanket over our face and convulse.
Why are we so impatient with pain? We are we so uncomfortable with grief, so anxious to sweep it up and dispose of it? One of the most asinine things I’ve ever heard was spoken to my girlfriend whose eighteen year old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Three months had passed since the accident; a woman approached my girlfriend whose taut-as-a-drum face reflected her grief and asked, “Aren’t you over it yet?”
2. An easy way to slip-up is to gloss over the loss by going straight to the explanation. We all become accountants and won’t tolerate untidy loose strings of mystery. Or we become a Fix-It Man who needs to fix whatever is broken. What we say might be true…but the timing is false. God does work all things together for good, a believer is undoubtedly happier in the presence of the Lord, the deceased is certainly spared more grief on this earth. Expressions of faith – “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, Blessed be the name of the Lord” – are sometimes articulated by the bereaved. If she says it, accept it. If she doesn’t, don’t force it.
3. A less common error is to discount the loss. After my dear neighbor lost her husband to a heart attack, another neighbor shrugged and dispensed his philosophy: “Well, we’re all going to die sometime.” There is a temptation with the loss of a young child to use the fourth grade arithmetic skill of canceling: “You can always have another child.” Or with the loss of an agéd parent, “At least she had a long and productive life.”
4. Those who have experienced the death of a loved one can be tempted to say, “I know just how you feel”. Don’t do it, even if you are convinced it is true. Every relationship is unique.
When I write a note, I often employ the words of wiser and more articulate people. This post is an attempt to gather together some of those words.
~ She who was so precious to you
We are terribly saddened by the death of your cherished sister, our dear aunt; but our sorrow at losing her is as nothing compared to our concern for your sake, because your suffering will be all the greater, Sire, as truly you have no one else left in your world, now that she, who could not have been more precious to you, has parted, and therefore we can only imagine how you sustain the severity of such a sudden and completely unexpected blow… I will say no more, except that with all our hearts we fervently pray the Lord to comfort you and be with you always, and we greet you dearly with our ardent love.
from Galileo’s daughter to Galileo, May 10, 1623. Quoted in Galileo’s Daughter
~ No words
My favorite story about my father relates to a time when a co-worker lost a child. My
father went to his friend’s house and sat with him and his wife. They cried and just sat together. No words were ever spoken. Dad just
soaked up some of the excess grief. This man later told me that my
father’s silent presence was the greatest comfort during that time. Some times we can’t be bodily present; some times I write There are no words.
When my dad died, my brother Jim wrote one of the most profound notes to our step-mother. He wrote one sentence and signed his name. It is hard to say goodbye.
This is what the Puritans called a ‘hard providence‘ is another way to acknowledge the loss.
~ God support you
God bless you and support you under your heavy affliction.
written to John Adams by Thomas Jefferson after the death of Abigail Adams
~ I’m sorry
A very simple expression of love and sympathy: I’m sorry for your loss.
~ We’re praying
Another simple sentence which hits the spot: We’re praying for you in this difficult time.
Any suggestions? I plan to add to this post as I come across other notes.