What to say
3 February, 2007
I’ve returned to blogging, but I have been meaning to address my aunt and cousin’s deaths more directly, to try and get something more meaningful out of it than the shock in my last post. Here’s my attempt.
First of all: thank you, commenters and emailers and callers, for your words and thoughts. It meant, and means, a great deal to have the support of friends. It’s a month now since we buried them. Life is externally normal; I’m back in DC, work, winter, yadda yadda. A few weeks ago, a friend emailed me with condolences, and also regrets that she hadn’t done so earlier. It made me think of a public service I could provide.
“I don’t know what to say”
We heard this a lot. It’s a lot simpler than you think. First of all, if you are saying this, it probably means you have the sort of mind that is not full of platitudes in the face of tragedy. This is good as IMO they can be the worst things to say (although not necessarily bad — see below). We didn’t get any “you should accept it as God’s will” sort of talk, I think for several reasons: 1) We’re Jews and it’s not the most Jewish of concepts. 2) In the murder of a child, it’s a hard one for anyone to really believe, I think. 3) The communities my family lives in are not the sort of communities that deal with tragedy that way.
Even if we had, though, it need not be inherently offensive–it’s all in the sincerity, intent and delivery. This was made clear when we met Ryan’s paternal grandfather, who was estranged from his son — Paula made it a point to have him meet Ryan over the summer, and it was clear he was eternally grateful. We got the impression, through the particular expression of his religion, that he had been saved from the sort of life which leads one to be estranged from one’s son by his church and by the fellowship there. But not even THOSE people talked about God’s will. They talked about praying to try and understand, which is a whole other thing and I wasn’t in the least bothered by it. If anything I was jealous of the structure his faith gave him for his grief.
Basically you don’t want to tell people how they feel or how you think should feel. I daresay that’s not too big a problem for the internetizens who read my blog.
Now for some specific guidelines. I imagined a person who had genuine feeling for the bereaved, but no experience themselves with such an event, and who would worry that she’d say something wrong that will upset them even more. If it’s been a while, she might also worry that saying something will be a reminder just when they’ve started to move on. Someone who’d like to help but doesn’t know what to do. Well, person, here’s what to do.
1) As soon as you hear, make contact. You need merely say “I heard about [thing/person], I’m so sorry.” There is no expiration date on this — do it as soon as you are able. They know what happened and have not forgotten so don’t worry about “reminding” them. In fact, as time passes, the initial outpouring of sympathy wanes, but you still remember, and it’s particularly comforting to get these sorts of messages when it seems like the world has already moved on.
2) Can you not possibly imagine what they are feeling? Say “I can’t possibly imagine what you are feeling.” Or say “How are you feeling?” Listen. They want to talk. Help them talk. Ask questions if you have any. If it seems appropriate, physical contact is nice.
2a) Try not to say “I don’t know what to say.” At least try not to have it be the last thing you say. (There’s a difference between “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to say, I can’t possibly imagine what you are feeling” versus “I’m so sorry, I can’t imagine what you’re feeling, I don’t know what to say.” No, it’s not hurtful, but it changes the dynamic in a subtle yet powerful way. Having it be the thought you want the person to respond to makes you upset and more focused on yourself, and it makes them upset because they feel they have to take care of you and it’s hard enough taking care of themselves. Really you’re better off just not saying it at all, replacing it with “it’s such a shock” or “how are you doing?” or something.
3) Share your experiences.* We heard about many people’s experiences with suicide and attempts, from strangers to very close friends. Because of my area of specialty and the people I’ve met within it I already knew that suicide was common, but this made the knowledge a lot more concrete. And more importantly, it really opened my family’s eyes. I’d been worried that they’d perceive a lot of stigma, blame it on the antidepressants, etc. but this really showed them the reach of depression and suicide. I think it helped them a lot.
4) Early on someone said, “tell me about Paula.” This was pure genius! You should all remember it and use it when you can. They want to talk about the deceased, so help them do it. Now, they may say anything at all when you do this. Esp in our case, we were — are — all pretty angry at Paula for doing this, on top of the grief. Don’t judge if that sort of thing comes up.
5) About “let me know what I can do.” Many people say this, but do they all mean it? I wasn’t sure. These times are so odd, you’re outside the normal fabric of life and some people will go outside that fabric with you and do amazing things for you — but not everyone can do that. Figuring out who will and who won’t takes a lot of energy. If you really want to do something for the person, don’t make them spend that energy on figuring your intentions out. Offer something specific or, better yet, just do something without asking:
5a) Visit them. Call, email, let them talk.
5b) Provide food, storebought or home-cooked, comfort/junk or real meals.** If you are worried about dietary restrictions, that’s nice of you, but don’t worry yourself out of action.
(I guess some religions do flowers. It’s not a Jew thing to do, we are more with the food. So maybe it belongs on this list, but I have no experience with it.)
5c) Take care of some obligation that you are in a unique position to handle. Contact mutual friends. Reschedule appointments at work. Help them arrange travel. Housesit. Petsit. (Thanks again C., but especially thanks to B. It was a huge load off my mind.)
5d) Take care of something that will relieve them of some stress. I’d say “clean their house” for this, but honestly for each death in my family the houses were so farking clean due to all the family members hanging around with nothing to do. So I can’t think of a good example here, but it will likely be very situational anyway. (oh, I know an example! Watch their kids. I wasn’t involved with this, but the kids in the family, 6 and 4 years old, were far too young for a lot of the funeraly stuff. If you have childcare skills, using them to give the adults room to grieve is really helpful.)
5e) Bring them books about [thing]. Easiest to do if you’ve been there and have some you’ve leaned on, or know someone who can recommend some. (n.b. don’t bring a bible. Either they have one, or they don’t want one. If you really must evangelize to people who may not be receptive, save it for after the funeral and so on — you’ll have more of their attention anyway.)
5f) Write a letter. The person you know is unlikely to be the only one affected by [thing]. Content either “I’m so sorry, awful tragedy, etc.” or specific reminisces about the person if you have them. For example, we gave many people my grandmother’s address (the mother and grandmother of the deceased). (If you’d like it, let me know.)
5g) Make a donation. In our case we are directing people towards the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
6) It’s not over when it’s over. The funeral, or surgery, or whatever is only the beginning of the rest of the person’s life dealing with [thing]. This is why it’s never too late for 1) above. And clearly a lot of 5) are relevant to the immediate situation only, but you can think along those terms for a very long time. What you can do is keep in touch and let the person see that you know that [thing] is a part of their life. You can also keep track of anniversaries–they will be, whether they like it or not, and hearing from you on one would be a nice touch.
7) This is more a general “don’t be an asshole” piece of advice, but it has to do with death so here it is. If you’ve never been to a funeral, maybe you don’t know that usually there is a procession of mourners’ cars that follow the hearse from the funeral home to the cemetery. They are clearly labeled, signs on all the windows, etc. If you see one: do not cut it off. DON’T. You wouldn’t interfere with an emergency vehicle, even with no police around, because it could affect another person, right? Well, same principle here: have some politeness and respect for your fellow anonymous human beings, dead and alive. (It didn’t happen this time but it did for my grandfather’s in 2000 and we almost lost the procession. We didn’t know where the cemetery was and it’s not like we could have called the limousine. One of the most stressful half hours of my life, and eternal thanks to P. for some of the craziest driving I’ve ever seen all for the sake of keeping up.)
That’s about all I can think of right now. Long story short, say something, do something. Even if it’s “I don’t know what to say”–although with these tips you should have an idea now. Show the survivors that they are part of a community.
And to all those who said or did something for me and my family — and those who will — thank you.
*People to whom this point is relevant will hardly need it to be said, they will know from having been there that this helps, but hey.**Two meals I remember: a homemade lasagna from my stepdad’s business manager, and some Thai noodles and dumplings from a neighbor of my parents’. There was tons more food, but we ate those two after crowds had left, and so it was an extra level of feeling cared for by the community–even when they weren’t there, they were there.