Q. I was recently at a funeral for a relative with Alzheimer’s disease who died in a nursing home. I happened to overhear someone tell the deceased’s son that, “It’s better this way.” The comment seemed inappropriate to me, especially because the speaker was not someone who knew the family well. The son also received some condolence notes that made similar statements. Your thoughts?
Many people think that words of wisdom are required when expressing condolences (oral or written). Actually, the opposite is true. A brief and simple statement, such as “I’m so sorry” is best unless you are very close to the bereaved and understand the circumstances involved. Why? Because you don’t know enough to say more—and it’s too easy to project your feelings onto the survivor. You may think it’s a blessing that the parent finally died. But that doesn’t mean those left behind feel the same.
The death of a parent is the end of the most basic relationship we have, as well as the end of a part of our identity. We’re no longer a son or daughter. Even if expected, the death has its own devastating reality. Grief can be both very complicated and individual. According to the National Cancer Institute, a number of factors play a role, such as the bereaved’s personality and coping skills, religious and cultural background, and social and economic position.
The person’s relationship with the parent is a key element, as well. In some families, the relationship may have been stormy and painful, not loving. In cases of severe conflict, the survivor may experience mingled feelings of love and hate. He/she may regret not working harder to heal rifts or refusing to forgive. Or unexpressed resentment of the parent may make it difficult to heal from the loss. In such cases, you risk stepping into a minefield by talking about “your love and respect for your father” or saying, “I know you must be grieving for your mom.” These assumptions may not be true. Rather than offering solace or support, such statements can intensify the survivor’s loneliness because they seem to judge what one is “supposed” to feel.
Acquaintances must realize, too, that the survivor is exhausted and overwhelmed with decisions, details, arrangements and loss. Feelings are raw. This is no time to spout platitudes or give unsolicited advice that can be irritating. The bereaved appreciate your sympathy. That, along with your sincerity, is all that’s required.