Shortly after my brother’s death, I fumed that I was going to write a book entitled “What not to say to a grieving person.” But then I figured that the people who would most need to read it would be the people who never would. And the people who spoke thoughtfully and from the heart, the ones who might agonize over what to say and would choose to read it, should not be troubled with the concern that they might say something wrong.
Grace. Any number of self-important people have told me that this loss will bring me grace. Or some variation on that hippie conclusion. I too possess a modicum of the puritanical belief that a hard life brings learning, and I agree that in some situations we are better off for having gone through the pain. This is not that situation. There is and can be no good in the death of a healthy 29 year old. There is and can be no good in having lost my only sibling. There is no reason for this death and I shall not benefit from it. The only grace I am developing from this loss is manifested every time that I refrain from punching the person who suggests such a thing.
Platitudes, generally. When a mourning person confides in another regular human being that we are suffering, we are seeking acknowledgment and maybe sympathy. We may seek platitudes from clergy, shaman, or psychologists, but we do not expect you, the ordinary person, to come up with something brilliant that will somehow magically solve all our problems. You’re off the hook, so stop furiously thumbing through your memory of hallmark cards and random “Native American sayings” books, and just be a normal person.
Comparison/projection. My mother received a “sympathy” card that said, “If my son died it would just kill me.” Did the writer want my mother, who is in so much pain, to just roll over and drop dead? Was it a statement that, since my mother is still alive, she didn’t care as much as the mother-author of this card? How stupid. Everyone who has actually suffered a loss, and that would be most of us at some point, knows how we feel or felt. But everyone’s situation is different. I, for example, cannot imagine the pain of my friends whose siblings were lost to mental illness, so I try not to pretend that my pain is the same.
Autopsy. My otherwise healthy brother apparently died of a massive heart attack at the age of 29. I understand that this is troubling to others, because to me it is incomprehensible that someone so alive could be dead. So I realize that there is curiosity, and to the extent that being asked about the cause of his death enables me to talk about him and his death, I am sometimes ok telling people what we know. Sometimes I’m not. But so long as it is approached in a manner of reverence and sadness, rather than scientific pursuit, I may be able to talk. Yesterday I had to excuse myself to cry in the bathroom after someone continued that line of questioning into an increasingly clinical, and morbidly tabloid-esque form of inquiry, asking even if my brother had been partying heavily and possibly using crystal meth. To my knowledge, my brother did not have a drug problem and he just died because he just died. But it doesn’t fucking matter. He’s dead. Had he been in a coke and meth-fueled rage and ridden a motorcycle off a cliff, he would still be dead. Respect those of us who have to live with that death. Don’t ask us questions like that. We’ll tell you if we want.
Yesterday, after that incident, I could hear how my own brother, far younger than the questioner, would have handled the same situation. He would’ve hugged the mourner, no matter if he had only met them once before, and said, “It’s good to see you. I’m so sorry to hear about your brother. That fucking sucks.” And in the gruff voice he used when making such pithy observations, my brother would have been completely correct.
My brother knew how to be incredibly kind, and he knew how to handle uncomfortable situations. For people who may not have that innate gift, here’s a short list of what does work, at least for me: Acknowledgment. A simple “I’m sorry.” Even the honest but oft-repeated, “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through.” Even the helpless “Is there anything I can do?” Frequent checking-in on someone, but without the expectation that they will always get back to you, or always want to talk. Asking someone what they are doing to cope, if they are getting the support they need. Listening and taking your cues from the mourner. Maybe I want to talk about my brother’s amazing ‘fro, and the time he got a bee caught in it that subsequently died because it couldn’t fight the curls. Maybe I don’t want to talk about him at all. Think, for one minute, no matter how terrifying, of how you would feel if you were suffering the same loss, then realize that you don’t actually have a clue (unless you do, in which case I am so sorry and my heart aches with yours), but use that empathy. Grieving people can be a touchy bunch, but I think most of us will understand and be grateful if you just use your heart and your head, even if what you say sounds stupid or awkward to you.
Shana tova. May this year be better than the last. It wouldn’t take much.