I thought my days of having to listen to and tolerate the painful words of would-be comforters had ended, but I was wrong. Even as I approach almost 20 years after the deaths of my wife and two-year-old daughter in a multicar accident I still hear and endure upsetting statements from people who do not think before they speak.
Two weeks ago I had just finished speaking to a group of mourners at a bereavement dinner. I had been giving them tips on how to deal with the many troublesome emotions of grief. Suddenly I heard a question from behind me. “So your entire family was in the car at the time of the accident?” said a female voice. “That must’ve been horrible for you.”
As I gathered up my belongings from the podium, I turned to stare directly into the face of a woman just a few inches away from my face. “Yes, it was horrible. Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate them,” I replied not knowing what else to say.
“Well, I don’t know how you got through that. I just don’t know how you did it. Your wife and daughter both killed in a traffic accident.” said the woman shaking her head with a look of pity in her eyes. “And you said that your two-year-old daughter died instantly in the crash?”
I could feel an anger welling up inside of me as I recognized this lady was like so many people who wanted to know the graphic details of my wife’s and my daughter’s deaths. There are just some people who can’t help themselves and seem to be interested in examining the unspeakable particulars of someone else’s loss experience like an overly curious passerby stopping to study each minute facet of a car crash or a train wreck, no matter how heart-breaking or horrific. “Yes, my daughter died instantly,” I said trying not to sound as irritated as I was quickly becoming.
“Well, it must be a comfort to you to know that your daughter didn’t suffer any pain. I mean she died instantly so there was no pain,” said the lady as she tilted her head closer to me in a way familiar to most mourners as the comforter tries to display empathy. “Yes, I’m sure that it is a comfort to know that your daughter died instantly in the crash.”
Fortunately for me and the empathetic lady speaking another mourner at that moment grabbed my hand and my attention away from the lady whose statement was still ringing in my ears and stabbing my heart with its insensitivity. “Thank you so much for what you said today,” said the welcome interruption. “It meant so much to me.” Fortunately I had been spared the temptation to strike back at the first woman for the emotional pain that had just been inflicted on me
THINK. THINK, would-be comforters, family members, friends, coworkers and neighbors. THINK before you speak to mourners. Once those words, no matter how well intended, are spoken, they cannot be taken back and the pain they inflict will always be remembered. That does not mean you should allow the fear that you might say or do something wrong for a mourner to keep you from doing anything at all for them.
Mourners need your involvement, support and encouragement. They need to know that you are safe to be with during their grief and that you are present for them when they need you. But please, THINK before you say anything to them.
Before you speak to a mourner you might want to THINK about these questions:
• Is what I am about to say going to comfort, encourage or help the mourner? Or is it just something that will make me feel more at ease or comfortable in the situation?
• Is what I am about to say something that would be comforting to me if I were in the mourner’s shoes? Or is it just something that will make me sound insensitive or uncaring?
• Is what I am about to say something that will help the mourner walk through this dark time in their life and to find their direction through grief in a healthy way? Or is it just something that tries to “fix” or “rescue” the mourner or to “explain away” their need to hurt so badly in the ways that they do?
• Is what I about to say something that the mourner can hear and understand that someone does care for them and what they are going through? Or is it just a glib, trite response to the person’s grief which will probably be drowned out by the deafening pain they are currently experiencing?
• Is what I am about to say something that will bring the both of us closer together as friends? Or is it possibly a painful statement that will come between the two of us and change our relationship?
• Is what I am about to say something that is strictly for the well being of the mourner? Or is it just something that will make me look better or feel better about myself?
Another point to THINK about when speaking to a mourner is that if you are about to say something that is life-changing, inspirational and unbelievably profound, it’s probably better to just keep your mouth shut and just listen to the mourner. Mourners are not interested in knowing how eloquent or wise you may be. Mourners are interested in knowing that you are there for them, that you will listen to them, that you will not judge them, that you will not give them unsolicited advice, and that you care.
Think before you speak to a mourner. Think and choose your words lovingly and carefully.
Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise” available online at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Love-Never-LPC-S-Larry-Barber/dp/1613796005 ), Barnes & Noble (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/love-never-dies-lpc-s-ct-larry-m-barber-ct-larry-m/1104364890?ean=9781613796016).
The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunca Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa”
Both English and Spanish versions are available for Kindle and Nook. Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX http://grief-works.org.