As I got up from by desk to head downstairs from my office, from the balcony above I saw him walking into the mail room below. He looked as he always did, a fifty-something professor, the same colleague I had known for 20 some years. I reached the last stair step and glanced at him as he spoke with the building secretary. There was absolutely nothing in his demeanor that would indicate his 50-year-old wife had died the day before. My first thought was. “Oh no, he’s going to be finishing up with his conversation and then it’ll be my turn.” I caught myself, “Oh no? Is that what I said? Really, Bob?” If there was anyone in my building of 20 social science faculty who should know what to say to a recently bereaved person it should be me. For the past 30+ years I’d been teaching a course titled Death & Life. In addition, I’ve given hundreds of workshops to thousands of people deep in the throes of grief. They have been my teachers. Human beings who’ve experienced the deaths of children, siblings, spouses, grandchildren, parents, and friends to chronic illness, accident, suicide, homicide—you name it—I’ve heard their story. Wouldn’t you think, therefore, that after years of hearing thousands of stories that I would be the last person to say, “Oh no, I’m going to speak with a bereaved person”?
I guess I’m saying that, if I’m afraid of grieving people, think about the average person. I’m certainly not saying that everyone is fearful. There are those few angels out there who have no problem listening to story after story of dying, death, and grief. However, let’s look at why the average person my be nervous around a person in grief:
1. I don’t know what to say. Have you ever been in a situation where stupid things came pouring out of your mouth? Perhaps you knew it the moment the words jumped out or perhaps the recipient of your blathering had to inform you or you saw the look on their face and said to yourself, “Did I really just say that?” It may have been one of the hundreds of clichés that well-meaning (aka, mindless) persons utter in a vain attempt to “make things better” “Oh, I understand just how feel. My cat died last year.” “It was God’s will.” “Well, everything happens for a reason.” And on and on. Perhaps it was a judgment statement, “You shouldn’t have done that.” Or, perhaps these wonderful words of wisdom emanated from your lips, “It’ll be okay.” or “Life goes on—tomorrow’s another day.” Or how about, “If that happened to me, I just don’t know how I could go on.”
2. What should I not say? In addition to fearing that you’ll say the wrong things, you may fall into the belief that there are certain things that should not be said to a bereaved person. One of the biggest mistakes is believing, “I don’t want to bring up the deceased’s name because it will remind her of what she lost.” So, what happens? You talk about everything but the most important thing—their loved one.
3. What should I do if tears, or anger, or expressions of guilt emerge? This is a big reason people in grief are so scary. Here you are standing in the grocery store with this person and suddenly they are in tears or their voice rises as they get in touch with how unfair all this is. Or the discussion moves to 37 types of guilt they are experiencing. And, all you can think about it is, “How can I change the subject to something like, “Wow, aren’t you glad hamburger is on sale this week?”
4. What if I start crying more than them? This is a common concern. Here you are trying to be of comfort and suddenly there you are, immersed in their pain of loss and you begin boo-hooing so much the person now needs to comfort you.
5. If it happened to him, it could happen to me. It is frightening to look into the eyes of a parent whose child has died, a spouse whose partner will never walk through the door, an individual who will always be a bereaved sibling, a grandparent who will never again hold that precious child, a child (of any age) who is now motherless or fatherless, a human being who has to live without the friend they always thought would be there; and, in the presence of such a person, you realize that it could happen to you—frightening.
6. It’s such a downer. An interaction with a bereaved individual is never easy. We consider keeping our distance because we know that, by approaching this person, we are opening ourselves up to a glimpse into their world—a confusing, crazy world called grief. And, we know that looking into their world is never easy. Never.
7. How should I end our conversation? Once you are in the presence of a bereaved person and you realize once again that no words can touch their grief, no sad facial expression of yours or no “Uh-huhs” or “I sees” can make their pain go away, you begin to wonder, “How do I leave this fragile person in this condition?” You wish for something that can make it better. And, now you hurt because you realize that you can’t make it better.
Back to the story. Despite my fear, did I speak with this man? Of course. I approached him, asked, “Would you like a hug?” Despite the fact that this man is not a hugger, he quickly said, “Yes!” We walked back to his office, sat and talked. Talked about her time in the hospital, about her final moments, about how it all doesn’t seem real, about crying and then laughing at stupid little things, about how her family is reacting. We chatted for 15-20 minutes and, once again I realized the truth in all this grief stuff: Of course we’re scared of bereaved people. Who doesn’t feel inept in the face of unremitting despair? But, they need us. They do. And, despite the fact that we’ll trip over ourselves, they need us to walk up to them and say, “I’m here.” “Tell me about your loved one.” “Tell me how you’re feeling. I’ll listen.” “I may not know what to say, but I’ll listen.” And, then they need us to do what every good listener does: Allow the person in grief to be in pain, let them take the lead, and then shut up. Now, that doesn’t sound too scary, does it?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR--------------
Dr. Bob Baugher is a psychologist and certified death educator who teaches at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington. He is a twenty-year member of the advisory committee of the South King County Chapter of The Compassionate Friends. Bob has given more than 400 workshops, is a trainer for the Washington State Youth Suicide Prevention Program, and is co-author of A Guide for the Bereaved Survivor, A Guide to Understanding Guilt during Bereavement, Understanding Anger during Bereavement, Death Turns Allie’s Family Upside Down (a child’s book on death), Coping with Traumatic Death: Homicide, After Suicide: Coping with Traumatic Death.