The Art of Comforting
(Column appeared on November 6, 2008, in The Montclair Times)
There are certain kinds of death that are always particularly difficult for survivors. This includes sudden death.
When death is sudden there is no chance for survivors to prepare, in any way, for the inconceivable. No chance to say goodbye, no chance to address unfinished business, to say words that may need to be said, or to explain or apologize for words that survivors wish had never been said.
In my case, one early spring morning, when I was in graduate school, I had a silly argument with my perfectly healthy father before he left for work. It was about borrowing the family car. By nightfall he was dead of a cerebral hemorrhage. And though we had a loving relationship, I will always remember that our last words were angry ones.
What can - and should - be said at such times by caring friends and neighbors? In 30 years of practice as psychotherapist, working with people who are facing death or who have had to deal with grief and loss, I've come to realize that we, as a society, are not particularly good at knowing how to comfort the bereaved. Often we do not know what to say, how to say it, or when it is best to say nothing and simply listen. But I've learned a lot from my patients over the years, and there's a body of research, from a variety of countries and cultures, that helps provide some guidelines.
DON'T SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT WORDS
There are no magic words to take away or even lessen the pain of someone who must deal with the death of a loved one. In the case of sudden death, the shock is usually so great that the mind can't initially fully grasp that a living, breathing human being, who is alive one moment, has ceased to exist (at least in this world) the next moment.
One of my patients was traveling in Europe with his wife. They were sitting in the back seat of a taxi, chatting, on their way back to the hotel. His wife said something amusing. He smiled and turned to her with what he thought was a witty reply. He'll never know how she would have reacted, because at that moment a car slammed into the taxi and, in an instant, she was dead.
What does one say at such a time? There is nothing that can be said to assuage the shock, and pain, or to help bring meaning or understanding to senseless death. All his friends and family could do was to be with him, share their love for him and his wife, and accept and respect the fact that for weeks he did not want to talk to anyone or show any emotion. Those who helped him the most were those who did not try to get him to react the way they thought would be healing to him.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING
Never underestimate the importance of simply "being there" when someone is grieving. A touch can mean every thing, even when words cannot be found. Listening can be a crucial help to people when they need to talk. Do not attempt to stop people from talking, no matter what they say - even if what they say, or how they say it, makes you acutely uncomfortable, or even frightened.
A patient of mine, for as long as she could remember, dreamed of having a little girl. After giving birth to five boys - who she dearly loved - she gave birth to a daughter. She and her husband were ecstatic. At the age of 5, her daughter had a routine tonsillectomy. Within a half hour of being wheeled into surgery, she was dead.
My patient, a deeply religious woman, became fiercely angry at God. She spoke his name in vain. She cursed at the heavens. She threatened suicide. Her family, her fellow church parishioners, even the minister were horrified. They feared for her soul. They literally feared for her life. But she needed to talk, she needed to say those things, and she needed the people closest to her to allow her to say them.
Today, this woman is still deeply spiritual, though perhaps in a different way than before. She's active in helping other parents deal with the death of a child. In this regard, she maintains that one of the most important things she can do for others is to listen patiently to them, "even when they talk crazy."
EVERYONE GRIEVES DIFFERENTLY
It's been almost 40 years since Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote her groundbreaking book, "On Death and Dying". She formulated five stages that people often experience as they face death and/or loss. These now well known stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Not everyone who is coping with issues of death, dying and loss experience these stages. They are common, but they are not universal. Kubler-Ross herself acknowledged this.
Do not assume you must help someone you love go through each of these stages. Do not assume that what you consider to be denial is pathological, and someone must move on to the next stage. Do not assume someone must achieve "acceptance" to be healed. Senseless, violent deaths are often impossible to truly "accept" or "forgive".
But channeling righteous anger constructively, in ways that honor and memorialize the dead, as well as help the living, is one of the best ways to promote healing.
DO NOT TRY TO DISTRACT PEOPLE FROM THEIR PAIN
Recently, there's been another sudden, tragic death in Montclair. Many young people, friends, teammates and classmates of Ryne Dougherty, are grieving. Don't attempt to distract these young men and women from their pain.
Validate their feelings. Encourage communication - even when they're communicating thoughts and feelings that may be difficult to hear. And help them to find their own unique ways to honor their friend.