The Appropriate Words

By Sue Elvis
What do you say when someone is grieving?
When I was grieving, not many people knew what to say to me. They wanted to help me but didn’t know how. They didn’t want to make things worse. They were uncomfortable. Some people were so uncomfortable they’d cross the road to avoid meeting me, to avoid having to try and think up some appropriate words.
Some appropriate words? What are the appropriate words? What can someone say to make things better? That’s the problem:  words can’t change the situation. But words are still important because they can make someone feel understood or they can add to the hurt. And no one would want to increase the pain.
What do people say?
“It could be worse. You could have lost one of your other children.” I love all my children. I would grieve for each and every one of them.
“You didn’t have your baby long. No time to get attached.” Don’t they know I loved my baby from the first moment I knew he existed?
“At least you have other children.” But I loved the one I lost too.
“You’ll have other children.” How do they know? And a new baby won’t replace the one I’ve lost.
I think that most comments are well meant. Our friends and family don’t like to see us so sorrowful. They only want us to be happy. And so they try to cheer us up and get us to look on the bright side. But it doesn’t help. It makes us feel we aren’t allowed to grieve, to take time to make sense of it all. “The sooner you get on with life, the better you’ll feel.”
I wanted my feelings to be accepted. I felt sorrowful. I’d lost someone so precious. It was very difficult. My heart was breaking. When someone acknowledged this and allowed me to feel that way, it did help. My pain was justified. I was given permission to grieve.
I have often heard people say, “God will never test you beyond your strength.”  I have even heard parents, who understand grief themselves, say this to comfort the bereaved. I guess people say it because it is true. We might even have experienced this to be true. We want to be encouraging, to give the bereaved some hope. But it is almost like saying, “Don’t worry about how you’re feeling right now. Don’t worry about the pain. You will survive because God would never send us what we can’t bear. Just be brave.” Even if we know we will survive in the long run, these words don’t take away the immediate pain. There are days and weeks and months and maybe years of pain to be endured.
When one of my closest friends was due to give birth, my son said, “I don’t suppose Mrs F will get a saint in Heaven like us, will she?” He sounded a bit regretful. I hid a little smile thinking that Mrs F would be very glad not to have a little saint in Heaven. She was hoping for a very much alive baby in her arms.
“Oh, you have a little saint in Heaven!” How many times did I hear these words? Too many. How many of the people who uttered them would have swapped their newborn babies for a saint in Heaven? None. And they were trying to convince me that things had worked out to my advantage. The words were well meant but made me feel angry. No one really understood.
With time, I came to appreciate the fact that our son entered Heaven with a pure and beautiful soul, and is there in the presence of God praying for us. And I am grateful. But it took time for me to appreciate this for myself. It wasn’t at all helpful to hear it from someone else.
Shortly after our baby died, I went to a function where everyone avoided me. All the other mothers sat chatting, glancing at me every now and then, but not saying a direct word to me. I could see they were thinking about our loss but no one said anything. Then Carol arrived. She walked straight up to me and said, “Sue, I don’t know what to say but I have to say something. I can’t ignore what happened. I’m so sorry.” She put her hand on my arm and looked me in the eye. And it didn’t matter that Carol didn’t know the appropriate words. I knew she cared.
And that is what I think supporting the bereaved is all about: trying to understand, acknowledging and accepting the feelings of grief, just being there to listen, to cry and to hug…
And trying to find the appropriate words to show we care.
Please share my stories at Sue Elvis Writes

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