When we hear that someone has died, we can't help but scrutinize the way they passed--as if dying were a contest. Were they young or old? How long did they suffer? Did the family see it coming? The more shocking, the more we secretly revel in the details. . . . Yet the more shocking, the more awkward we are at comforting the bereft.
When my husband committed suicide three years ago, it was the most unspeakable of departures to many of our friends and acquaintances. They didn't exactly know what to say. "Well, at least it wasn't cancer!" and "He was able to go quick and on his own terms!" were common condolences.
But then there were others whose whispers were a little louder than intended: "It would've been better if he'd had cancer!"
A week ago, my heart broke again when I got the call that my brother had died suddenly from a heart attack. The heartbreak at hearing the news was all too familiar. Having grown up on a remote farm, we were each other's best friends. I found myself once again experiencing profound sorrow and disbelief that were eerily similar to what I felt when my husband died.
But the outpouring of sympathy in the last few days has been so much more compassionate compared to when my husband died. My brother died from the most common cause of death (heart disease), so it's been much easier for others to relate and share condolences respectfully.
On the other hand, my husband's death seemed preventable--he had a choice, and he chose the taboo one. What do you say to comfort the family of someone whose death is socially unacceptable? Most of us were taught at a young age how to minimize feelings by comparing losses. A well-meaning guest at my husband's memorial whispered to me, "I was feeling sorry for myself when my husband died from a stroke, but at least he didn't kill himself. Honey, how will you survive this?" By comparing our losses, she inadvertently made me feel worse.
Judging the way someone dies is natural and human, but it's not kind. Regardless of the way someone dies, the grief that you feel is unique because your relationship with the deceased is unique. Our grief is a culmination of who and what we lost as well as our individual ability to cope. Comparison robs dignity because you never know how someone else feels.
I have a grief recovery client whose father's death to diabetes took place a decade ago, but it still feels as if it happened yesterday. However, she recently lost her brother to the same disease--and was surprised that she felt very little sadness. They had never gotten along even as small children, and had been estranged for years. "Does this make me a bad person?" she asked me. "I feel sad for his wife and our mom, but I don't feel sad for me."
I assured her that this wasn't the case:
"Each of you had completely different relationships with him, therefore each of you are entitled to your own feelings about his death."
The way in which a person dies absolutely makes a difference to his loved ones, but it shouldn't make a difference in the way that we treat the bereaved. Try your best not to show your discomfort, and if you judge (you're human after all!), keep your thoughts to yourself. The following tips will help you show your sympathies in the days and months after:
- Acknowledge their loss, and express your support as simply as possible. There is no reason to compare it someone else's story that you may have heard once. Each loss is unique because each relationship is unique.
- Offer to run errands for the bereaved, babysit their children, help with housework, walk or wash their pets, or bring them food or groceries so they can feed themselves when they feel like it.
- Ask them how they are doing. Just listen.
- Try not to use clichés (i.e., "I know how you feel," "This is part of God's plan," "You'll meet someone else").
- Take them out for a cup of coffee or a meal. Be OK if they don't feel like taking, but know that taking them out gives them a brief break from their grief.
It's hard to understand another's grief as most of us have difficulty processing our own, but what helps in these trying times is the knowledge that we all share in the experience of heartbreak. Being self-aware of our naturally critical thoughts and offering support with an open mind will undoubtedly be valued and welcome by the bereft, and you'll appreciate it when you too experience a loss.
If you or someone you know needs help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.
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Source: Healthy Living Huffington Post