Q. I recently spotted an acquaintance walking down the street and ducked into a store. His wife had died, and I didn't want him to see me because I didn't know what to say. I felt like a coward. Why is it so difficult to talk to someone in this situation?
The fact is the idea of facing any bereaved can bring strong men to their knees. Although women are generally more expressive, they also dread the experience. Two common reactions are to avoid the person who is grieving – or feel so uncomfortable that you talk too much to the person, which makes the encounter even more awkward.
Why do we react this way? Death is no longer an accepted part of the life cycle, as it was years ago, when life expectancy was much shorter. Death was less mysterious, and it often happened at home. Family members also lived close to each other and (along with neighbors), formed an on-the-spot support system for the bereaved. People felt connected to each other. Today we all want to live forever, and we don't want to be reminded of our own (or our loved ones') mortality.
We're also confused about the purpose of expressing sympathy, which makes us feel helpless. We think we have to "fix" the situation and relieve the person's anguish and sorrow, which is, of course, impossible. It helps to understand that sympathy is simply an acknowledgement of what has happened. All you have to say is, "I'm so sorry for your loss" or, "I'm sad to hear about your (mother, wife, brother or uncle)." If the death was sudden and/or a tragedy, my response is often, "I don't know what to say to you." That's a powerful statement that sums up the enormity of what has occurred.
What happens next? Pause and allow the person to respond. Listening is therapeutic for the bereaved, and can be a great gift. If conversation lags, you might ask, "How are you managing?" And to avoid feeling trapped, arm yourself with an appropriate exit line, such as, "I'm sorry you have to go through this." However, do not ask, "Is there anything I can do?" – which has become an automatic throwaway line – unless you really want to help.
It may take some practice to feel less anxious in the face of someone else's grief. But it's empowering, too.
If you have a question for Florence, please email her at email@example.com.
Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a blog for bereaved spouses and partners.
Image via Wikimedia Commons, Hash Milhan
Dear Florence, I'd like to thank you for writing the good tips to making it easier talking with the bereaved. One time a woman lost her husband and I said "I don't know what to say." I've lost both my parents, my only sibling and my only child. December 2016 the father of my late son Joe's friends passed again I spoke at the grave site. December 2017 I spoke at the mother's gave-site. This year Thanksgiving and Christmas the daughter telephone me at 9pm. I didn't not hear the telephone ring. She seems to think I have some kind of magic but I don't. I grieved by crying and screaming now I don't do that. I told the 49 year old Marie that I suffer but I kept doing what I was doing when my son was killed by a drunk driver and the case was dismissed he walks the streets. My life has changed but I was writing articles montly for 8 years with photos for the newspapers to get members for the garden club. As president I kept my positions of publicity, membership, programs, and last year did a year-book for members. Plus I'm an advisor at the Senior Center. I think of my family and miss them terribly. There are many people I've met that have lost their children and they enjoy themselves. My belief is that life is for the living. We are all here for a reason. Each of us has a purpose be it a negative or positive one it can influence peoples lives. Your article is a positive and unfortunately there negative words by people that are stuck in the mud. You have extended your hand with 7 tips that can help. Someone hurting needs to extend their hand to help others and in turn there will be people that will love them and extend their hand. Life can be good regardless of what happens that is painful and change that most people don't like. Thank you I've written down some of your good tips to say to Marie when she calls me again for probably the next holiday. I appreciate what you wrote thank you so much. Appreciatively Barbara Rieger
Hello Florence..I have the opposite problem...since my husband's death I steer clear of people. I don't want to talk and I know how uncomfortable it does make people feel when they ask how I am doing. Somethimes, if it is a couple, it seems like they have survivors guilt. They are still together while I am not. After 43 years of being together I really don't feel that I fit in so I just avoid places and people. It's surprising how being 2 people together really makes you 1 whole person. My husband is gone 4 years and I miss him so much but I don't talk about it anymore. I have just resigned myself to the way I am and the way life will be for me until we are the completed one person again.
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