Dealing with grief
“Nothing is worse,” a friend sobbed, “than people telling me that my child’s death was God’s will.”
“What kind of God permits a child to die?” she continued. “She had her whole life ahead of her. She was such a good child, she did not deserve to die. How can her death be God’s will?”
My mom died at a young age, more than 20 years ago. Her demise was so sudden that none of us were able to say goodbye.
Well-meaning friends murmured that her death was God’s will. These friends were kind and loving, but their platitudes were hollow and offered no comfort whatsoever.
So now I remained silent. I could only listen and hug her as she wept and poured out her anger and pain.
What not to say
In my psychology of trauma class at Ateneo de Manila University this semester, I worked with doctoral students to create guidelines for fellow counselors.
Bereavement is a situation all of us face, sooner or later. When death is expected or even longed for, bereavement may not be as traumatic. But more often than not, the death of a spouse, a parent, a child, a friend leaves us in despair.
My student, Ma. Tonirose de Guzman-Mactal, lists some statements we should not say to the bereaved.
“I know how you feel.” Really? Can we ever truly know what the bereaved feels, even if we ourselves have had to deal with death? Instead of telling people we know how they feel, we can offer sincere condolences and say we are praying for them.
“It’s part of God’s plan. Everything happens for a reason.” What reason? Like the statement “It’s God’s will,” these platitudes can make the grieving angrier and more resentful, especially if their relationship with God is rocky or uncertain.
“Someday you will have an answer.” Is this guaranteed? What if the bereaved never finds out the answer?
“God never gives us more than we can bear.” This is probably the most popular comment and it is an attempt to boost the coping ability of the bereaved. But this comes across as insensitive in the face of a tragic or sudden death, when those in grief are still grappling with the loss, without any visible means of coping. A better approach would be to simply ask the bereaved, “How can we help?”
“It was his/her time to go.” No one knows the best time for anyone to die. Are we an authority on death? Who are we to say so?
A friend said, “Just because my grandfather was 80 years old does not mean that it was OK for him to die. Do people think that we would grieve less because he was old?”
More harm than good
Some statements are extremely insensitive, even callous, causing more harm than good. Never ever say the following statements:
“You’ll get over this. You’ll feel better soon.” Only people who have never experienced death or grief firsthand can say these things.
“It could be worse; you still have a sibling/parent/child.” This trivializes the death of a loved one, making those in grief feel that the loss is an insignificant event.
“At least you’re alive.” This may cause the bereaved to feel guilty, especially if he/she is the only one who survived when everyone else died.
“You’re still young. You can find another husband/have another child.” These imply that the person who died is easily replaceable which is, of course, ludicrous.
(To a child whose parents died): “You are the man/woman of the house now.” This places an additional burden on a child who is grieving. Even if the children are the sole survivors, it is not appropriate to tell, say a 10-year-old, that he/she is in charge of all his/her siblings. We need to help the surviving children any way we can, financially, morally, emotionally.
“It was probably for the best.” Huh? For whom?
“You must be strong now.” I remember a friend who lost his beloved wife. He grieved for her so much that three months after her death, he was still neglecting his kids. Their grades plummeted and their conduct in school deteriorated.
The father was deep in grief and understandably so, but since they had little family support (no grandparents or relatives nearby), I had to remind the husband to be strong—for the sake of his kids.
“Your wife loved your kids so much,” I had to tell him. “Out of your love for her, you need to become a father again.”
But I did not tell him this right after his wife’s death. Only when there was no choice, after months had passed, did I remind him of his responsibilities as a father. I was also available whenever he wanted to pour out his grief.
In most other cases, telling the bereaved “You have to be strong” can backfire. What grieving people need, first of all, is comfort. Telling them to be strong should be done only after wise thought, not to be used carelessly during a wake.
Any statement that begins with “You should” or “You must” is also too directive and commanding. The bereaved needs comfort first.
“In most situations, comforting words are not always necessary,” says Mactal. “Our eagerness to say the ‘right words’ or to communicate sympathy may not always bring good results. When unsure as to what to say or how to say it, it is better not to talk. Nonverbal gestures such as hugs, shoulder rubs and holding hands may be more appreciated than platitudes.”
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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