When tragedy strikes, most of us go into a different behavior than normal as we search to make sense of the tragedy or trauma.
During the grieving process, those who are immediately affected may not be in their “right” mind, meaning that they will bear the brunt of offensive statements, only to possibly catalogue what is said and–depending on their recovery–react in that moment unlike themselves (or not react until later or at all).
You never know when a person’s anger, fear, denial, or acceptance is going to guide their personality, especially at high times of stress, panic, and trauma.
A funeral brings with it unexpected costs, stresses, and sometimes we become different people for a small while as a coping mechanism. Some of us appear to stay the same throughout the process of grieving or trauma, and many are affected by a tragedy without actually acknowledging that they have been affected.
And many times–when there’s a national tragedy, we don’t realize that grief is hitting everyone differently, and we need to be cautious of how we approach the topic and each other.
As friends, family members, and good citizens, we should be aware of what not to say and how to act during times of heavy emotion and grief, especially if we’re not on the inside of those affected, and also when national tragedy strikes and we feel connected to the families of the deceased in a way that we haven’t felt before.
Don’t stay silent
After watching my grandfather die from leukemia, I grew even closer with my grandmother. At the house gathering after his funeral, I remember going up to her at one point, not knowing what to say. I was only fifteen years old at the time, and, seeing that everyone was stuffing their faces with food after one of the worst days of her life, I made a comment like “so Gram, do you want a ham sandwich?” I was making fun of the strange and awful moment in hopes to gain solidarity with the grieving widow, who was as close to me as my own mother. She smiled, knowing that I was at a loss for words, and that I had decided to be humorous at what was an awful moment. She made a quick joke back, and I knew that she understood that I just wanted to be genuine in my condolence.
The grieving can go into a period where it seems like they aren’t listening, or that they’re receiving so many condolences and comments that you think that saying something won’t make a difference. It will and it can. Prepare something thoughtful, because many of us want to be heard and feel like we need to say something (even when most of what people say is cliché or not very clever).
Curb the “at least his suffering is over” comments
This includes “at least the funeral is paid for,” “at least he had a good life insurance policy,” and “at least now she’s at peace with the Lord.”
Depending on the tragedy and your involvement in it, this is a statement only those who were directly involved with the deceased should make, and even then we should think about the value of our statements–is she really at peace? Is the funeral cost something that can relieve the grieving? Is s/he really in a better place now–a better place than right here beside loved ones on Earth?
The grieving have to be there, but you don’t. But you also want to physically be there to support them, without advice or vague commentary. Asking if there is anything that you can do to help today or in the next few weeks might be a better line because you never know when the grieving are going to need help.
And they might just take you up on that offer at a later date.
Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers
Sometimes when people approach those in mourning, they just say whatever it is everyone else is saying, not because they’re not genuine, but because it’s a tough, rare, and awkward moment that many people just want to get out of. The grieving can assume that they are in your thoughts and prayers, even if they hear it said over and again. It can also be comforting in a strange way–but not when it’s said ad nauseum by thousands of politicians and friends on Facebook.
When my father and mother were in a horrific car accident, and my father was still in a coma after two weeks of surgery and an ICU stay, I remember a fellow coach awkwardly telling me to “keep the faith.” At the time, “keep the faith” was a Boston Red Sox motto of sorts. And for some strange reason—for me, a person of no faith—it comforted me, at that very moment. My faith was in the doctors, nurses, and hospital to keep my father from dying, and in his resilience to get better. But I appreciated that few minutes of time when we were on the soccer field when the coach, who probably didn’t know what to say at all, said something to me as a friend and fellow son.
Don’t be so hopeful, but be hopeful
Some of us are hopeful by default–even when the odds are slim. Sometimes a good old “he’ll pull out of it” or “he’s a fighter” are just empty words that fall on deaf and hurting ears. Better than blind optimism, be realistically hopeful in your words because sometimes the grieving are looking to put all their hope in one thing, and then when that thing doesn’t work out–or that thing leads to twenty-seven other things that then have to work out as well–the hope of the grieving will have to take a new course that didn’t have to be there in the first place.
When we grieve, we look for answers and open ourselves to possibilities that sometimes we never thought we would hope for.
Don’t be an op-ed voice during a tragedy
There’s nothing worse that meme-ing your way through a national or local tragedy, as if the trauma is there solely for you to climb some high horse and be the most righteous of them all. All of us are children, siblings, and friends of someone, and should be aware that suffering is universal. All of us are or know what parents go through. All of us are human and emotional. Highlighting the President’s tears (or lack of them) in a meme to better advance your beliefs in the Constitution comes off as arrogant, unnecessary, and even cruel when the grieving see your handiwork online.
The grieving may forget what you said, but they won’t forget how you made them feel. And in a time of tragedy, we need to feel comforted–and not at war–by and with our neighbors online and in real life.
Scotch and sodas while chain-smoking–and just being there
Before my other grandfather died, he had spiraled out of control in his own grief because his wife had passed–another grandmother who I loved like my own. One of our very last times together was an impromptu visit with him where we finished off a cheap bottle of Scotch and chain-smoked cigarettes, talking and joking about whatever. He sat in the same chair at the same kitchen table he had sat at with grandma for decades. I sat opposite him, in grandma’s chair, and we had a time of it.
I don’t remember what we talked about that day, but I remember not wanting to leave because I was having a moment that both of us would carry in our hearts–the simple task of being there for someone.
Just being there–holding a hand or pouring a drink and wasting the hours away can be some of the best parts of the grief process-driven therapy.
There’s nothing you can say, really
I’ve been to enough funerals to know that I have to prepare myself for everything from parking correctly and walking in the right door to knowing what to say to the family line. I always compliment the deceased while talking to the family and let them know that I will remember their loved one fondly and that they are not alone in their grief.
Every time I reach the casket, my usual sentiments are that I wish I had known you better, and I wish you didn’t have to die. For me these are the truest statements that I can say as I whisper to the casket, whether it’s open or not.
After experiencing the hell and trauma of war, it took the writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. years to put his trauma and emotion into story form–specifically about being on the ground during the bombing of Dresden.
It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”
The lesson here is that as that last shovel of dirt is placed on the casket, and the last condolences are shared, there will be a long silence that the grieving have to deal with, and even the birds don’t know what to say, or say correctly.
Sometimes there’s nothing to say. But when there is, know that it may stick with or carry them for a long time.
Photo: Getty Images
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