Being there for someone who's lost a loved one
There’s a situation that I run into fairly often in my hometown, one that I dread. I’ll be browsing the shampoo aisle of Target or waiting to be seated at a restaurant and run into someone I haven’t seen in years. Sometimes it’s a neighbor that’s moved away or a former teacher or some other acquaintance that for whatever reason doesn’t warrant a Facebook friendship. As is inevitable in the catch-up conversation shuffle, once we have breezed past my current occupation and relationship status, come the standard congenial questions about family members. It goes something like this:
“It’s so good to see you. How on earth is your brother?”
“Oh, yeah about that. Unfortunately he died last year of a blood clot in his coronary artery. It was very sudden and it caught us all off guard, but he went quickly and painlessly.”
“Oh my God. I had no idea. Well what about your folks. How are they coping? Please tell your dad ‘Hi’! Has he retired?”
“Ummm…. About that. Yeah. Mom is doing great, but my dad died in 2012 of Mesothelioma.”
Shock. Sometimes frantic red-face or the occasional constrained tear follow.
“Oh Dear. I had no idea. Well…um…take care of yourself. Bye.”
As the person I bumped into walks out of sight, I can often hear them whisper to a companion how awful and embarrassed they were by not knowing the news prior. Inevitably, I feel terrible for them, not only for their sudden loss (which really happened years prior and which I have already grieved) but because they have to navigate the awkward situation of dredging something up that is far from standard small talk and pleasantries.
It’s uncomfortable, and I wish it wasn’t. I wish our dialogue about death was a more open one, and that people wouldn’t get that deer-in-the-headlights look when I give them the news before feeling like they had made a huge mistake.
Immediately following the deaths of my brother and dad, one of my tasks within the family was to call people and tell them. No one wants to be the bearer of that, the worst kind of news. But one thing no one clued me into at the time was that for years to come, I would still be doing this. Although, I’ve gotten slightly savvier, there seems to be no way to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that follow. But here are a couple tips that I’ve learned if you ever have a conversation with an acquaintance about their loss:
- It’s OK to acknowledge that it’s an awkward moment.
- Tell the person a happy memory about their dearly departed. Those are always fun. You may teach them something new about their lost loved one that they’d never hear from another source. Even if it’s something vague like, “They always had the best stories!”
- Be compassionate and ask them how they have been doing since.
- Don’t overdo it by overcompensating. No one wants to be thought of as “a poor thing.” Or be reminded of how awful that it must be.
- Use social cues to see what feels right. If the person appears upset by having to tell you the news, give them a hug.
And if you are the person that is, like me, dodging old acquaintances in the aisles of the grocery store, stop being a punk and try to ease the weirdness of the situation as much as possible. It’s going to be OK. It happens to everyone at some point. We all just need to talk about loss a little more, and hide from it a little less.
[Image via Shutterstock]