Lessons learnt from bereavements, new and old
There is something about death that makes us exceedingly uncomfortable. We don’t want to imagine a time when our parents will no longer be around. We don’t want to dwell on the prospect of our own deaths. And we don’t even want to think about the possibility that some of us may survive our own children.
As a result, we are completely unprepared when death comes visiting in our vicinity. We can only guess how our parents would have liked their funeral arrangements to go, having never discussed anything quite so unpleasant with them. So, we flounder around, half-mad with grief, trying to work out how best to send them off. We don’t write our wills or put our affairs in order, because, you know, that would be tempting fate. And all too often we leave an almighty mess behind for our heirs to sort out – yes, the ones we are sure will live on long after we are dead and gone.
And such is our unexpressed but deeply-felt horror of death, that we don’t quite know how to deal with those who are newly bereaved. We want to express our condolences, we would like to be sensitive to their loss, and we certainly empathize with their pain (especially if we have experienced it ourselves). But there is something about death that leaves us all a bit tongue-tied. We simply can’t summon up the vocabulary to vocalize our thoughts. And so, we fall back on platitudes, cringing within ourselves even as we mutter them, knowing that we are bringing no comfort to those grieving.
Or maybe that’s just me. I still remember the acute discomfort I felt when I called upon a young mother in my neighbourhood who had lost her young son to cancer. I had seen the child grow up before my eyes, seen him waste away as the disease took hold of him, spent time by his hospital bed, holding hands with his hollow-eyed mother. I even managed to endure the funeral, heartbreaking as it was.
It was when I called on the mother the next day that I ran mysteriously dry on words. What does one say to someone who has suffered a loss like that? Words seem so inadequate in situations like this. But I still tried, telling her how much he was loved, how he was in a better place, that he was no longer in pain, and that he would always live in our hearts.
Platitudes. Every single one that I could think of, trotted out so that I didn’t have to deal with the real emotions that the woman in front of me was experiencing. Platitudes. That distanced myself from her pain and suffering. Platitudes. That allowed me to reduce her unimaginable grief to proportions that I could deal with.
I went back home, feeling ashamed of myself.
Ever since then, whenever I have had to deal with death and bereavement, I have tried to do a little better. And over years of mourning the loss of those I loved and those loved by them, this is what I have learnt.
• Sometimes it is okay to not say anything at all: If you can’t think of anything appropriate to say, stay silent. It is for times like this that hugs were invented. Just hold the grieving person close, letting them know that there is still love in their world. If they cry uncontrollably, don’t ask them to stop. Allow them to let their grief out by way of their tears. If you are crying too by then, it’s fine; don’t be embarrassed. Tears are probably the best way for you to communicate your feelings, until you are strong enough to find words.
• Allow everyone to grieve in their own particular way: There are some who can’t stop talking about the passing of a loved one. It is almost as if they are trying to desensitize themselves to what happened by telling the story over and over again. Just listen to them. That’s all they want. And then there are those who can’t bring themselves to talk about the one they lost. Respect their reticence. Recognize their fragility. And talk about something else.
• Don’t avoid people who have suffered a bereavement simply because their grief makes you uncomfortable. It may be hard going sustaining a conversation with them. They may not be much fun for a long, long time. But stay the course. Don’t cross the road to avoid them because you can’t stand to see the sadness lurking in their eyes.
• Remember, grieving is a process. Don’t try to hurry it. Or ask people to start resuming their normal lives after a couple of months, as though there isn’t a person-shaped hole in their hearts. Allow them the time and space to come to terms with their loss, no matter how long it takes.
• Acknowledge the fact that time does not heal; it just anaesthetizes. That when you lose a loved one, there is a tiny part of you that is always grieving. And that’s the way it should be. Because that’s the way we carry those we loved and lost in our hearts forever.