A few weeks ago I had the chance to walk through two cemeteries within a week’s time. As I strolled through the beautifully landscaped grounds and in between the headstones I looked at the names and family relationships that were etched onto the stones: mother, father, husband, wife, baby. I began to wonder what kind of lives these people led, what they did for work, how their families were. Some dates reached back into the early 1800s. “Two hundred years from now, will I be remembered?” I wondered. To me they were fading shadows of lives long ago, but back then they were important to someone. Someone grieved their deaths.
We all know that losing someone is hard. Loss comes with feelings we may never have experienced before. We may grapple with waves of emotions, uncertainties, calm, fear, even relief. When my grandfather died three years ago my novice director (back when I was a Jesuit) told me to make sure I left room to grieve, as it is easy to get caught up in funeral and burial arrangements and barely acknowledge my feelings. It was excellent advice. Eventually, we find that life moves on and we can begin to peacefully celebrate the deceased’s legacy and impression on our lives.
But sometimes it’s even harder when someone we know loses a loved one. Perhaps a friend or significant other loses a parent or a family member. What do I say? How can I support them during their grief? November is a month to remember the departed. It is a good time to prepare ourselves for future encounters with death.
No magic words
The first thing I learned as a hospital chaplain was that there are no magic words. At my grandfather’s funeral I disliked the receiving line as friends and extended relatives came by to express their condolences. I certainly appreciated their support, but there was this feeling of awkwardness for us both because there is an expectation for the one giving the condolences to say the “right thing.” But as the grieving one, all I needed to know was that they were a supportive presence.
People grieve in different ways. Some expect sympathy cards, some an “I’m sorry,” and some grieve quickly and move on. Others may find themselves in denial a lot longer. Even others will never want to talk about death, promptly changing the subject if it arises. The key is to meet the grieving where they are. Just a few months ago I lost a close family friend to breast cancer. She was like an aunt to me and she left a husband and two children, all of whom I am very close with. How could I be there for someone who lost her mother and someone who lost his wife? Their Jewish tradition of shiva includes the custom of bringing food to the grieving family as well as one’s presence at the mourners’ home in the week after the death. I brought food, visited their home, and helped them know my love. Words may not always comfort perfectly but meeting the grieving person where they are, including in their own tradition, begins with a loving presence.
Don’t assume you understand what someone is going through, even if you yourself have suffered loss. Whether with an ill patient or with a family member who just lost their loved one I would never presume to tell someone I understood their unique pain. Instead I would truthfully acknowledge the discomfort by telling them that “I can’t fully understand what you’re experiencing but I realize it’s hard.” This fulfills the only thing a grieving person needs: supportive presence. You acknowledge that it’s difficult and you don’t escape from the discomfort. In the hospital it was easy for me to escape the discomfort around a grieving family, either by making an excuse to leave the room or by changing the subject. There is no good done in attempting to take someone’s mind off the loss. Grief cannot be prevented and it should never be inhibited. In the hospital sometimes even a wordless presence was the most important thing for the family. And if my presence with a grieving stranger is important, how much more important is it that I stay by the side of a grieving friend?
In the Gospel of John when Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus dies, Jesus comes to them and raises him from the dead. But there is one almost throwaway line that takes me deeper into the story: “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him” (John 11:20a). I once prayed with this scene and saw Jesus and Martha share a tearful embrace. Lazarus and his sisters, after all, were among Jesus’ closest friends. To me, that encounter on the road exemplifies the kind of support and presence Jesus offered to Martha and Mary in their grief. Martha practically ran out to meet Jesus when she heard he was coming. Whether Lazarus was raised or not, I think the most important thing to Martha and Mary was that their friend Jesus was there for them. They were not alone.
None of us can raise the dead like Jesus, but we can be there for a friend or significant other who is grieving a death. All humans in their lifetime will experience grieving a dead loved one. It’s normal (even animals grieve), but it’s always hard. Companionship is vital in our lives. The same holds true during grief. The presence of someone who acts as a support, a presence, a companion through the darkness, is critical in the process of grief. It may be awkward and uncomfortable, but even the silent, supportive presence of another person offers the best kind of comfort and healing.