We who have lost our spouses, life mates, soul mates often have to show empathy and understanding to others rather than receiving it from them. We are the ones hurting, so why do we need to be understanding of their feelings? Because it is far easier for us to remember what it felt like to be in their situation, than it is for them to imagine what it must be like in ours.
Shortly after Jeff died, I had to let a man know of the death, though I don’t remember how I conveyed the information. It took months before I could actually say the words, “Jeff is dead.” But I do remember his response. “I know what you’re going through,” he said. “My dog just passed away.”
I stared at him, unable to process those words. To this day, his remark appalls me, though I have come to understand he was reaching out the only way he knew how.
Death is shrouded with an element of blank. It is the great unknown and unknowable, and our brains are not equipped to handle the immensity. While we are in the grip of our grief, the survival mechanisms of those around us are triggered. To avoid facing the unfaceable, people close to us will indulge in self-protective behaviors that shut us out.
Sometimes long-time friends, especially couples, draw away from us. The death of our spouse and the demise of our couplehood change the dynamics of our friendships. People fear we will now be uncomfortable in the company of couples. At the same time, they are uncomfortable with us because all unwittingly, we are a reminder of how fragile life really is.
This drawing away is often an unconscious reflex — they know we are hurting, know they feel helpless in the presence of our pain, but they don’t really know they are acting any different and certainly they don’t know why.
The jargon of grief is that of illness, of negativity, of . . . fault, as if somehow we who are grieving chose our state and now we have to overcome, heal, recover, move on, get over, return to normal. By blaming us for grieving too long, by refusing to admit that our grief is normal, onlookers to our grief can more comfortably return to their job of surviving, and leave us alone with our sorrow.
Even those who are kind to us bereft, even those who continue to be supportive, lose the urgency they had at the beginning. They cannot sustain that same level of support because grief takes way too long, and they need to focus on their own lives.
Despite these protective behaviors and the almost bumbling way people treat the bereaved, and despite my occasional acrid comment about the insensitive things people say to grievers, people do care, and they do want to say the right thing. In the last couple of days, more than 3,300 people landed on my blog post What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas? after Googling such things as “how to say Merry Christmas to someone who is grieving.” “how to wish someone a Merry Christmas after a loss,” “Christmas greeting for grieving person,” “how to wish Merry Christmas to someone who is grieving.” In fact, since I posted that particular blog in 2011, more than 80,000 people have viewed the article.
Many thousands more have viewed What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving.
The true villain here is death. While the very idea of death drives non-grievers away, it draws us grievers in, forces us to face the unfaceable, makes us an accomplice. And yes, even allows us to show empathy to those who don’t understand but who try to show sympathy the only way they can.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.