By Marilynn Preston
Dealing with death—your own, a loved one’s, the death of a child— is a required course at the University of Wellness, Ballet and Refrigeration.
No one gets out of here alive. This we know. What we don’t know is everything else. Death is the biggest mystery of all, leaving many of us clueless when it comes to comforting someone who’s lost a loved one.
What do you say? What don’t you say? Do you mention the dead person by name? Do you try to offer good advice, to be helpful and loving?
“Do not give advice,” advises Edie Hartshorne, a master of social work, longtime therapist, former Fulbright Scholar and award-winning author of Light in Blue Shadows, (Ellsberg Books), a wise and inspiring book about death, compassion and transforming grief.
After her 20-year-old son Jonathan died, unexpectedly, tragically, Edie went on a dark and deep journey into her own pain and unraveling. When she came out the other side and wrote her book— “a journey of loss and grief that leads to a place of wonder,” says Isabel Allende on the jacket cover—Edie had a new awareness of many things, including what it means to comfort, and be comforted.
“Many times when we feel uncomfortable with another person’s loss, we offer advice, hoping to make everything better.”
Resist, says Edie. The person grieving doesn’t need advice. She needs to be heard, to have her loss acknowledged. She needs her friends, her family, to be fully present, listening to whatever she has to say.
Here are some more empowering Edie-isms to help you through the inevitable:
Don’t say you know just how the grieving person feels. Don’t equate or compare your grief to the other person’s. When you say, “I know just how it is. I lost my mom a year ago,” it can trivialize the other person’s pain.
“This can be particularly true when a parent has lost a child,” Edie writes. “It’s better to make no comparisons.”
Don’t remain silent. Very often, because we fear saying the wrong thing, we say nothing at all about the truth of what’s going on. That’s a mistake, Edie counsels. It’s isolating for the person grieving to be surrounded by silent friends.
“It’s so important to validate the other person’s reality,” she writes. Share your truth plainly. “I just heard your terrible news. I am so sorry and sad. I just want you to know I am holding you in my heart.” Say it your way, with your true voice, but don’t hide in silence.
Don’t try to fix your friend or family member. This goes along with not giving advice, but you can’t hear it often enough: “There is nothing to fix,” Edie writes. It’s natural for someone to feel grief when a loved one dies, and it’s very painful.
Your job is to “stay present to the other person’s pain.” Just be there. There is nothing to repair.
Don’t ask, “Is there anything I can do?” Just do it. Take the initiative. When people grieve, Edie says, they’re often too overwhelmed to sort out what needs to be done, too shy to ask for help.
Notice what needs to be done and take action: bring over dinner; drop off flowers; walk the dog. This requires a sensitive touch, but if you wait to be asked, you may miss the opportunity to truly be of service.
So much for the Do Not’s. The Do’s are closer to Edie Hartshorne’s true nature. She’s a poet, a musician, a peacemaker and a very positive person:
Be present to exactly where your grieving friend is in the moment. If six months have passed, and he suddenly bursts into tears, “take a deep breath to bring yourself fully into the moment, speak slowly and lovingly.
“Listening fully and with a big heart is the most powerful medicine.”
Make phone calls to your friend or family members during that first year. Grieving people are fully aware of the birthdays and anniversaries involving the person who died. Say something! says Edie, who writes beautifully about this in her book.
It feels very lonely when those dates go by, unacknowledged.