#592 Musings Beyond the Bunker (Friday February 24)
HOW DO YOU EMPATHIZE WHEN THE GRIEF IS GREAT?
Any loss is tragic but the impact is greater when it is a young person or when it is completely unexpected. Time itself takes on new perspective and point of reference, as events become labeled as having occurred in either the “before time” and “after time.” How can anyone adequately empathize with a friend who has experienced profound loss?
We all want to be there to help but it can be paralyzing, not only for the person experiencing the loss, but for those who want to be there and respond in a caring and constructive manner. Having been through such loss, I offer a few observations:
1. It’s okay to feel awkward. It is, after all, awkward. What do you say to the aggrieved? Should you say anything? Clearly, “thoughts and prayers” are kind but feel hollow. One may feel uncomfortable but it is in this discomfort that we can evidence and share our humanity. It is, after all, not about you. It is about the person who is grieving. Be comfortable being uncomfortable.
2. You should say something. There is nothing quite as lonely than silence. The greatest comfort you can give to someone who grieves is an acknowledgement of the person who is gone. I cannot tell you how wonderful it was when someone asked about my sister 10 years after her death. When asked “How is Gale doing?” I had to then deliver the news that had not made it to this person. When people were taken aback, I would respond with “Don’t be silly; I appreciate your mentioning her. Every time I hear her name is a good thing.”
3. You cannot know how it feels. People feel a need to empathize and that’s great. Some will try to say they “know how it feels.” You can’t know how it feels. And that’s okay.
4. Telling someone that “it’s the worst thing imaginable” or “I can’t imagine how I could ever deal with it” isn’t helpful. Your interaction with the aggrieved is not about you. It is about the other person. Sharing your view of how bad things could be, as you imagine it is simply voicing your own anxieties; it doesn’t make it better for the person grieving.
5. Don’t say “Is there anything I can do?” and follow up by not doing anything at all. If your goal is to help the person, then do something. Take the person for a walk; ask them to sit and look at pictures; talk about the person who died. Anything. But saying “we’re here for you” or “call me any time” shifts the burden to the aggrieved.
6. Feel free to invoke the name of the deceased and don’t be afraid to recall a story. For some reason, people resist uttering the name of the deceased. I wish I could convey the joy in recounting stories, particularly those that have a humorous side. Nothing is quite so comforting as reminiscing and sharing.
HOW THE AGGRIEVED DEAL WITH THE WELL-WISHERS
In return, there are things that the person in grief can do in accepting solace and setting a positive tone. Try hard to be kind to the person trying to articulate the incomprehensible. Put them at ease and confirm what they mean to you—and how much you appreciate their message—regardless of how awkward it may have been.
I’ve lost a lot of people over the years. People often ask whether I think about loss all the time. How can one not? it is not an obsession, but it lurks as a constant reminder. The remarkable thing about humans is how we are able to adapt to almost anything. Just ask Victor Frankl. I don’t think about loss all the time but I do think about those I have loved every day.
What I think about mostly is not the loss, but of the gift of having known them. Most of us can fall back on recalling warm memories, funny stories, and shared experiences. Why dwell on death when one can focus on life?
ACCEPTANCE OF OUR MORTALITY
When one thinks about a life, it is important to recall that a life has value regardless of length. While people say of the death of a nonagenarian, “they lived a long life,” that’s hardly comforting to a grieving child. There is never a good day to lose a parent, regardless of age. Similarly, suggesting that a life tragically shortened is somehow less valuable diminishes that life. All lives, regardless of length, have value and should be celebrated for who the person was and how they positively affected us.
It is a curious phenomenon that people intellectually accept the concept of our own mortality—that we’re not going to get out of here alive—but don’t seem to acknowledge it on a personal level. We know it will happen in theory but we can’t imagine it actually will happen in reality. We know this is all going to end but we can’t live as if it will end. Look at Henry Kissinger, 99 years old, writing op-eds. or Warren Buffett, still investing for the long term, or the doctor or lawyer who refuses to retire. We should live a vital and vibrant life and we should live our lives with the knowledge that they are precious and our time remaining become shorter each day. Joy should not be postponed. Life should be lived.
EULOGIES WHILE LIVING
A closing thought. Upon returning with my father from a funeral, he would always make two comments apropos to the moment that have stuck with me. The first was “I’m lucky to return from this one above ground.” The second was the acknowledgement of a beautiful eulogy, while noting what a shame it was that the person who died wasn’t around to hear it. My father felt the outpourings of emotion and appreciation after a person died was nice but “just a little late.” He would always say that “it would be better to eulogize people while they are living.” What he meant, of course, is we should share with people while we are with them how much we love them, how much they mean to us, and how thankful we are for them. Why wait until death to articulate these emotions?
Have a great day,
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