We all say stupid things when we’re out of our depth, and in my experience people are never so far out of their depth as when they start talking about someone else’s grief.
The day my father died, a nurse turned to my mother and asked: “Is this the first time she’s seen someone die? Is that why she’s so upset?”
It was not my first rodeo; in fact, it was the fifth death I’d witnessed, but so what if it had been? I was 23 and I’d just lost my father. My grief didn’t need justification. There was no reason to ask why.
Months later when my mother and I went to renew our Costco membership, we explained our situation and asked to swap out my name for my father’s on the second card, rather than start a new account.
We still lived at the same address, met all the criteria, but from the look on the employee’s face you’d have thought I’d asked to return a lightly used Christmas tree.
“OK, I’ll do it, but just this once,” he said.
Just this once? I can almost laugh now. What did he think I was going to do, start killing off my immediate family on a regular basis just so I could keep switching card holders to inconvenience him?
Years of fielding outrageous questions and comments has made me think about how little we’re taught about grief and interacting with the grieving.
We laugh at the Victorians with their black crape and mourning clothes, but in retrospect there were times I wish I could have worn something that would have told the world “warning, handle with care,” instead of walking through life looking like nothing had changed, when everything had.
Later that year, a friend asked what wisdom I’d gained from the experience of my father’s death. I stared at that text for a long time before answering.
If you break your leg no one asks what you’ve learned about bone density. If you survive a car accident no one expects you to be expert on airbags and crumple zones.
But if your whole life is swallowed up by a tragedy, people will want to know what wise, uplifting lesson you’ve extracted from it. It’s human nature to want to believe in happy endings and silver linings, but that expectation of turning pain into something positive is an unfair burden on grieving families.
Over time, though, I realized people said these hurtful things largely out of fear. My family embodies every family’s worst fears – proof that a kind, hardworking, non-smoker like my dad can wake up one day with stage IV lung cancer, for no reason, and nine months later never wake up again.
We became boogeymen no one wanted to believe in. But it took me longer to realize there’s another kind of fear — good, well-meaning people who were so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they chose to stay away and say nothing at all.
Sometimes that silence cut deeper than the stupidest of off-hand comments.
Six years later I still don’t have a perfect solution for talking to families like mine. This life hasn’t made me a saint or a grief guru, but I will say this: If you love someone who has lost someone, there will come a moment when you want to say something but don’t know what to say.
That’s OK. Tell them that.
There will be times when you don’t know what to do. And it will make you so uncomfortable you will want to leave.
No one knows what to say; there’s no playbook for this.
Instead of waiting for the perfect words or for things to go back to “normal,” weigh the discomfort of operating without a manual against the suffering you’re witnessing. Find the strength to stick around and the guts to admit you don’t know what to say.
I think that’s the best anyone can do.
Sarah Comer of Puyallup is musician, storyteller and community dance facilitator. She is one of six 2018 reader columnists for The News Tribune. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org