Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Stupid Things That Caring People Say About Grief

There is a difference between sharing words of sympathy, empathy, and compassion, and to the one who is grieving, it’s a big difference. Sympathy uses stock phrases that convey civility but not heart, and says things like this: “I’m sorry you’re suffering. This has to be hard, but I’m glad it’s not me.” Empathy moves the listener closer: “I lost my father last year so I know how grief consumes your every thought.” Compassion takes the listener right in: “Let me sit with you for a while and you can tell me what your grief is doing.”

Many people, even the thoughtful and caring, want to help those who are grieving, but if they haven’t experienced grief, they often say the wrong things. These are some of the phrases I heard after my wife died. If you’re inclined to say them to someone, don’t. Just, don’t.

You will be okay. It’s better this way.
Really? My wife is gone forever. That will never be okay with me.

Time heals all wounds.
Grief is not an illness like the flu that will go away on its own. You can’t kiss this boo-boo away. Grief will hang around until we face it.

It’s time that you got over this.
We do not get over grief. Grief will always be with us because we will always love the person who died. But we will learn to live with it. Grief will become part of our life instead of being every single moment of every single day.

It’s been a month. Maybe you’re not grieving right.
People think a month is the time it takes to recover from grief. I thought so, too, before Evelyn died. Maybe that’s because a week feels too short, and a month is a nice chunk of time. Grief will last longer than that.

Grief must be teaching you something you needed to learn.
If I needed to learn it, then so do you. Get in here with me.

I know what you’re feeling. I understand what you’re going through.
No, you don’t, not even if you also lost a wife. You don’t know where in grief’s landscape I am until you sit down and listen.

Her death is part of God’s plan. She’s in a better place. She’s out of pain.
I like what C.S. Lewis said when people told him he should be happy because his wife was now in God’s hands. Lewis thought she was in God’s hands when she was alive, but look at how she suffered with a horrible disease. Some people say that suffering is part of God’s agenda, but helping someone who is grieving is a matter of compassion, not theology. God didn’t promise that we wouldn’t suffer, only that we wouldn’t be alone.

You have to move on.
Why? Why do I have to move on? What you’re saying is that you’re tired of hearing me talk about death and grief.

Here are a few basic things I’ve learned:

When a spouse dies, we lose someone we expected to spend the rest of our life with. My wife died in her 40s. It takes time to dismantle the life we had planned out and build a new one.

If we lost a child, we also lose our dreams for her, our expectations of being a parent and watching her grow up into a freestanding adult.

If we lost a parent when we were young, we missed his love and guidance at a time when we needed it most, as well as every day since. We missed getting to know our parent as an adult.

To know how grievers are doing, use these ballpark figures as a rough guideline. They are based on my experiences and the experiences of two-dozen friends. Some people will move though grief faster, some slower, especially if an act of violence was involved.

The first six months of grief will be marked by shock, disbelief, anger, despair and begrudging acceptance — “The Five Stages.” Yet there are more than fives stages, not everyone will go through each stage, or in the same order, and they’re not really stages, but you get idea. Everyone’s grief is different.

The second six months will have some of the previous concerns, but also a great deal of numbness and uncaring about anything or anyone, including ourselves. Our physical senses will return and we’ll be able to taste food again and like to go on long walks, trying not to remember.

During the first year, we have to endure all the anniversaries, birthdays and holidays for the first time without the person we would most want to celebrate them with.

In the second year, we wish we could get on with life, but we may not have any idea what we want to do, and we probably don’t have the energy to do it if we did. Moments of joy will return and go away. We will cry, get angry and despair again, when we see the clothes and cherished possessions of the one who died. Out of the blue, we’ll feel like we’re back in day one.

In the third year, we begin to construct a new life and move on. Memories continue to return and we cry when we hear certain songs, watch favorite movies, or go to our local restaurants.

We think every death is wrong.
Because of modern medicine, we’ve come to expect that everyone will live into their eighties, and we think it’s a tragedy whenever anyone dies before then, especially children. Yet the death of parents in their nineties is still traumatic, because people we love, people who were good, amazing, and central in our lives are gone. This is a loss, and we grieve.

There are no words that will take the pain away.
I don’t expect you to have words that will erase my pain. And you can’t undo death, as much as we both wish you could. But your presence helps me bear the pressing weight of grief, and this makes all the difference.

(Parts of this post have appeared in my articles in the Huffington Post and the Good Men Society.)

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