Friday, November 13, 2015

What Not to Say: < awkward silence >

A.Hanson, Boulder, 2010
Today's phrase in the "What Not to Say" series is not saying anything at all.  I think we have all had the experience of not wanting to say the wrong thing.  So perhaps we think that the best thing is not to say anything at all.

One of the most hurtful things that compounds bereavement is when one's friends drop off the face of the earth.  Sometimes we don't want to exacerbate someone's pain unintentionally, by saying something wrong.  Or perhaps we are afraid of unintentionally unleashing a tsunami of grief by asking the wrong question. Or perhaps we just can't deal with other people's tears or pain.

I know from my own personal experience and from the people that I accompany through their own grief, saying nothing at all is painful.  There is a fear that if you should ask about someone's recently deceased loved one, you will cause them increased pain.  The pain exists whether or not you mention their loved one and one of the few things that can be balm to a grieving soul is talking about the person they love and miss and have lost. Telling stories of your wife or father or sister or son is a way of preserving their memory for just a bit. Talking about the loved one that has been lost is a way to make sure that they are not forgotten, which is one of the greatest pains for those who are left behind.

It is not likely that a kind and compassionate conversation will unleash a torrent of grief that cannot be stopped.  People who are in grief are already living in a place that is overwhelming.  Your reaching out might be a life raft.

I have almost nonexistent patience for people who cannot stand to witness others' grief. This is one place where it is really difficult for me to summon compassion.  You do not have to say anything profound, because honestly, there are sometimes just not words.  But showing up and showing that you care goes a long way, so try to get over your discomfort about tears and runny noses and pain, and meet your friend in your humanity. Because one day you are going to need the support of your friends too.

Here are a few things to say instead of saying nothing…

"I just don't know what to say, but I am here for you."
"I cannot imagine what you are feeling, how much pain you are in, but I love you."
"I wish I knew what to say. Would it be helpful if I walked your dog/babysat your kids/brought you dinner?"

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