Newsweek online has a regular feature called My Turn where ordinary people submit essays on topics they are passionate about in hopes of seeing them published to be shared with others. Recently I read an essay by Jess Decourcy Hinds, a twenty-five year old college writing instructor, on the do’s and don’t’s of expressing condolences to the grieving. Ms. Decourcy Hinds lost her father a year ago to cancer. Although she was concerned with society’s tendency to hurry the grieving through the “process” and back to a state that makes everyone but the bereaved person more comfortable, she was truly torqued about the way people phrase their expressions of sympathy. Her essay reminded me a bit of a list that circulates with regularity on the YWBB which is meant to help the non-widowed avoid irritating the widowed with their well-intentioned, but basically clueless and clumsy, attempts to help us feel better.
There are all sorts of pat phrases that the newly bereaved will hear during the first hours to months after a loved one dies. Frankly, I don’t recall all the platitudes that I know were offered up to me as balm for my seared soul. The only one I do recall that I still take great issue with is “I understand how you feel” because few people do unless they have been widowed themselves. I only understand bereavement from my own perspective and suspect that I am not alone in this. A point that I think would be lost on the author of this article. My parents are still alive. I haven’t lost a sibling. Though I did lose children to miscarriages, I have not lost a baby or a child. I don’t know what that would feel like. I don’t know how I would react for sure. I do know that based on how it felt to watch my husband slip away from me over months and years and then die, that I can’t imagine the pain of other types of loss of loved ones, and this is mostly because I don’t want to. I have enough pain and memories of pain without imagining losses that have yet to or may never occur in my lifetime. I am honest now when I express my sympathies to those newly laid low by grief. I am very sorry for the pain they must be feeling, and I really can’t imagine what it must be like.
A good friend from many years back lost her son when he was just a bit younger than my daughter. He was murdered by her now ex-husband. We have fallen out of touch over the years and those times when we have reconnected, we haven’t discussed him. Since that time she has moved forward, married again and has a little boy who is two years younger than my Dee, and I have lost a husband. The one time we did tiptoe around the edges of our losses, we both came to the agreement that there is no road map for grief. No handbook to follow. And we are left to struggle through as best fits our needs. I think that probably this can be said of those around us as they grope for words of sympathy. Because it is sympathy they are expressing, not empathy. They don’t know.