Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Ten things not to say to someone grieving a death
This day, ten years ago, my mother died of cancer.
I still miss her. I didn’t want to write a blog post about her or the illness—too personal, sorry—but when I thought about what happened after her death, then there was a lot that needed to be said. My mother had extremely religious friends, one of whom had exorcised the demons of cancer out of her a few days before she died, and some of the things they said to me, I’ll never forget.
1. “You’ll get over it.”
Or what I got, which was minus the “you’ll”.
Especially if the death happened recently, the person may be deep in grief. They need to work through that at their own pace. They don’t need to get the impression that there’s something wrong with their pain, so other people are looking forward to that being over and everything going back to normal.
2. “She’s in a better place.”
Firstly, not everyone believes in an afterlife.
Secondly, my mom’s place was with her family. Period.
So each time I heard that, I thought the person saying it didn’t know my mother at all, if they believed she could be happy without her children and her home and her busy, cheerful, productive life.
3. “She’s watching over you.”
Shortly after my mother died, an acquaintance of hers phoned up to tell me this. She also claimed my mother would always be with me and if I ever needed anything, all I had to do was ask my mom. After I got her off the line, I shouted to the empty house that my mother was d-e-a-d, dead! and as a result, she wouldn’t be hanging around like Casper the Friendly Ghost.
If people are helped by the belief that their lost loved one is now their guardian angel, that’s wonderful for them.
But please. Don’t assume that everyone shares this belief, that everyone wants to share it, or that everyone needs to hear it about their own loved ones.
4. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Every time I hear this I think, “Yes. Sometimes the reason is that shit happens in this world to people who don’t deserve it. Wonderful reason, that.”
It’s great if people take comfort in the conviction that there’s meaning and/or a good outcome in grief and loss. But again. Please don’t assume that everyone shares this viewpoint, or that others will appreciate the idea of their loved one’s death being planned so something special can take place.
5. “She wouldn’t want you to feel like this.”
Even if she wouldn’t, the fact remained that I did. Piling guilt on top of everything else isn’t likely to help.
And I just wished the person saying this wouldn't try to speak for my mom.
6. “At least she isn’t suffering any more.”
Yes, the reason she’s not suffering is because she’s dead. Er… yay?
7. “She wasn’t such a great person, really.”
After my mother’s funeral, my father’s cousin started to tell me about a flaw in my mom’s character. I immediately interrupted to say I wasn’t interested in hearing it and never would be interested in hearing it. My mom was not perfect, and I’m well aware of that, but no one gets to criticize her to my face.
Slamming a dead person to someone grieving the loss of that person is an especially low blow. It’s not going to produce the result: “Maybe I should stop feeling sad.” It may, however, lead to: “Maybe I shouldn’t speak to you again, so I don’t feel worse.”
I can only imagine what such people say when someone dies of a drug overdose or through not wearing a seatbelt. Keep the judgments to yourself, please. The dead person’s relatives don’t need to hear them.
8. “It was meant to be.”
I don’t have to explain why this is hurtful and unproductive, do I?
9. “I will do this and that and the other thing for you.”
Which is lovely if you mean it.
But there was a couple in my mom’s church who (at social functions) kept saying what they would do to help me, without ever actually doing anything. After the first couple of letdowns, I wised up.
Maybe they felt good to say this, maybe it was like “let’s get together some time” or “I’ll call you in the morning” or maybe they got brownie points from the people at church who overheard but who didn’t know they never followed up.
10. “What a saint she was. She never doubted. She never said a word of complaint.”
She never said a word to you. Maybe because she knew you wouldn’t want to listen.