Saturday, August 22, 2009

What To Say?

What DO you say when you encounter someone who has recently sustained a tremendous loss in the form of the death of a child? Joan Calvin comments below that as a pastor, even she doesn't know. Please allow me to simplify.

First, remind yourself that you are looking at someone who has experienced one of the worst things life has to dish out. One of the very worst, and you have no way of knowing what that means unless you are part of this particular club. You are speaking to someone who may have sat for weeks on end at the bedside of a dying teenager, or may have witnessed or even in some way been involved in a young child's completely accidental death. He may have received the phone call at work, standing at lunchtime amid a sea of empty cubicles. She may have found her child's body. Whatever the situation, it's terrible. And you just need to know that; you don't have to say it.

Second, and I am going to switch to the feminine pronoun here, because I am the writer and I am female: walk right up to her, RIGHT UP TO HER ~ THIS IS NO TIME FOR COWARDLY PUSSYFOOTING AROUND ~ and say and acknowledge whatever is appropriate to your knowledge and the time span, anywhere from "I just heard about your son's death and I am so terribly sorry" to "I am so glad to see you; you are never far from my thoughts."

Third, if you can because you know something, offer a kind and specific remark or memory about her child. "I will never forget his speed on the soccer field." "I hadn't seen her since she was in kindergarten, but I heard she was really enjoying her job." And then pause. Give her time to respond. You are contributing to a mother's narrative of her child's life by reminding her that others remember, and want to remember. You are doing one of the very best things you could possibly do. Better than a lifetime's delivery of chicken soup.

And finally, ask something specific about how she is doing. One of my best friends tells me that the best advice I gave her came from a story I related, either here on on my other blog, about running into a friend at Borders and his asking me how I was that morning. As I recall, I was in bad shape due to an earlier telephone call, and could not have offered any rationale whatsoever for my presence in a bookstore. "How is your morning/afternoon/evening going?" will do just fine. It sounds as if you really care, and it limits the answer to a manageable parameter.

And yes, you should try your best to interject yourself into someone's life. Call and then stop by, stop by for five minutes on your way to somewhere else, email and make a specific suggestion for a meeting time and place. Risk the rejection that you may well experience, perhaps even several times over, and realize that you are dealing with someone who on some days finds that it takes too much energy to hit "Reply."

So: this is not a situation which requires imagination or creativity. This is a situation which requires courage and fortitude. And if you think that you are somehow lacking in either of those qualities, take a cue from the mother you are approaching. She needs them just to open her eyes in the morning.

15 comments:

Mompriest said...

Thank you.

karengberger said...

Amen! This is wonderful insight and true wisdom. Thank you for helping all of us, the bereaved and those around us. XO

caitsmom said...

Yes.

Karen and Joe said...

Love it. May I reprint it on my blog with a link to yours? It's so concise and practical and right on, and I would love others to read it.

Gannet Girl said...

Sure, Karen.

Daisy said...

Thank you for this, GG. Very good.

Mich

Carol said...

Thank you for once again reminding us how we can help those in need in a sensitive, supportive, and appropriate manner. I wish your knowledge wasn't as raw and firsthand as it is but in that you're teaching each of us.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

This is so helpful. Thank you.

Rev SS said...

Awesome. I would also like to link it on my blog, and to print it off to share with my Stephen Ministers and TLC Team, crediting you and Joan?

Gannet Girl said...

Fine with me; JC has to speak for herself.

Nancy said...

Thank you. Wisdom indeed.

A question. I'm a hugger but not all folks are and sometimes it brings tears (I'm fine with sharing tears but do not think it should be my decision to make). I normally ask if they would mind if I gave them hug.

Do you have suggestions?

Widening Circles said...

This is really good advice. I wonder if it wouldn't generally apply to any situation in which you're talking to a person who's lost a loved one. In other words, I suppose I'm wondering if the problem really is that we can't think of what to say, or that we're just really afraid to face that kind of pain.

Gannet Girl said...

Oh yeah. We're all chicken. Or used to be. I read that Elizabeth Edwards said that once you've buried a child you lose your fear of other things, and that's close to true.

Anonymous said...

you always know exactly what to say and are always able to put into words feelings we all have.
April

Laurie said...

Thank you for this - it is always hard for me to know what to say and I know I am not alone, I am afraid I - and others - sometimes say nothing to avoid saying the wrong thing.