What NOT to say...
One of the most difficult things for us to do is visit someone who is experiencing loss or a bad time in their life. Maybe they just got some bad news about their health or the health of a loved one, maybe someone significant in their life has just died, or maybe they just lost their job. Priests and deacons often find themselves in these situations and it is always tough to find the right words. I’m sure you’ve found yourself in that place a time or two and felt awkward when approaching the person. In my experience ( and probably in yours’) I have learned there are words that are helpful, words that, although well-meaning, are hurtful, and that there are times when saying nothing is the best approach. Also, I recently read an article in “Relevant” magazine that sheds a lot of light on this subject.
· “This is all a part of God’s plan.” Recently, a young lady lost a 2-month old baby to SIDS. Naturally, this was a devastating experience for her and for her family. But to tell a 21-year old that God took her baby away from her because it was His “plan” is not helpful and in fact was quite damaging to her own relationship with God.
· “I know EXACTLY what you are going through.” You may have experienced something similar to what others are going through but you probably have no idea EXACTLY what they are feeling. Each of us handles loss and pain in unique ways and we need to be sensitive to that fact when addressing others.
· “You shouldn’t feel that way.” Oftentimes people become angry with God or with others or they may experience depression, anxiety or other emotions in the face of death or other loss. The fact is that they feel what they feel and they probably cannot help it.
· “Get over it, it’s time to move on.” If you’ve never experienced real grief it may seem odd that come people seem stuck in their loss but they probably can’t help it. Telling them to “move on” may be a direct assault on their memories and attachments to the loved one they lost.
· “You should have prayed harder.” In the wake of 9/11 I actually heard a radio station telling their listeners that if they were worried about someone they knew in the World Trade Center or in the Pentagon they should pray for them to be found ’OK’. When people called with stories of death and loss, one of the announcers told the caller that they must not have prayed enough or that they didn’t pray ‘rightly’.
· “Don’t worry, God will give you another child or husband or job, etc.” When a person is grieving a profound loss they want a particular child or person or job or whatever back in their life - not a replacement.
So, there are a few things to avoid saying in a situation of loss but what should we say or do? Here are a few suggestions:
· LISTEN! I have found that many people in the wake of death/loss want to talk about the situation or about their loved one. Just being present and listening can be a real help.
· Ask what they really need. Sometimes we think we know that they need help with food or a gift or a memorial, but that may be the last thing they need or want. Ask them so that your efforts can match their needs.
· When the time is right, tell them what the deceased person meant to you and how they effected your life.You may know things that this person said or did that no one else knows - sharing those in appropriate ways with the family can be a real boost.
· Stick with them. It’s easy to forget about a person or situation shortly after the funeral. When a person experiences a profound loss it (usually) take them months to start feeling a bit “normal” again. Be sure to call, send a card, or invite them out.
In the end, the best we can really do is to be a good friend by being present to them throughout the early, middle and later stages of their recovery. And – don’t forget to pray for inspiration and for your friend. This isn’t the least you can do for them but the MOST.
Also, there are many good programs for persons experiencing grief and loss. We offer one right here at St Michael Parish on Thursday evenings. Catholic Family Services and many funeral homes offer seminars and programs as well. Perhaps you could offer to attend one of them with your grieving friend. That support could be what makes the biggest difference for them.