Good Grief Part II
When I left you last week we were examining the normal and essential nature of grief, and the tendency in our society to try to save our friends who mourn from this process because it pains us to see them grieve.
Hardly a week passes that we do not have some friend or colleague experience the death of a loved one; and we feel called upon to go to a wake or funeral service where we find ourselves fishing for the right words to say to them. And, even if we miss the wake or funeral service, we feel called upon to send a "sympathy card" or if we are more sensitive or thoughtful, write some words of comfort.
There is often a temptation to try to push some grief-stricken friend out of a stage of their grief, which is painful for us to observe, by asking them to compare their situation with someone whose situation is worse than theirs – in our view of reality. The book, "On Grief and Grieving," by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Keesler offers a poignant illustration of how dangerous it is to offer comparisons to a person who is grieving some loss. They tell of a young man named Brian who had to have his leg amputated. The loss was terrible. During a rehabilitation session he saw another man who had lost both legs and he was inwardly embarrassed for having felt self-pity about his loss of one leg. The next day he saw a man who had both legs but needed a cane to walk, and once again he felt his own loss more keenly. Later the two men had a chance to talk about what had brought them to this point. Brian said he had lost his leg due to diabetes.
The man with the cane said he had an automobile accident which had caused a minor back injury and that he was in rehab to regain his strength. Still comparing losses, Brian said: "Well, at least you have two legs." The man with the cane said, "Yes, I do, but I lost my wife in the accident." Someone else’s loss may seem greater or lesser than your own, but all losses are so individual that comparisons are dangerous, if not cruel. Do not try to comfort yourself, or someone else, by comparison. It almost never works.
In the Newsweek article (May 28, 2007) on grief, Jess Hinds, who was grieving the loss of her father said: "My grief is profound: I am mourning the past, present, and future. I resent the condolence cards that hurry me through my grief as if it were a dangerous street at night." "My grief is not a handicap. People seem to worry that if they encourage me to grieve openly I will fall apart. I won’t. On the contrary, if you allow me to be sad, I will be a stronger, more effective person."
There is a great temptation for us to point out the silver lining in the grief of others. Don’t go there! If there is a silver lining or a blessing in disguise to be found, it must be found by the grief-stricken person, not by some well-intentioned friend who just can’t stand to be near or participate in someone else’s pain.
This is an abbreviated form of Jess Hind’s basic guidelines for mastering the "Art of condolence." Read with care! Be simple and direct, i.e., "I am so sorry about . . ." Ask "how are you?" or "How are you feeling?" instead of telling someone how to feel. Never say: "I can’t imagine what you are going through." The emotional translation to the grieving person is: "This is too hard for me, I don’t want to think about it." Never give advice about how someone should get through the loss. There is no universal "how to" formula.
Any loss tends to be like an amputation. You will survive, but there will be less of you in the end. I know that most all of you have experienced some life-changing loss: death, divorce, loss of your job, etc. If you have not, trust me, you will.
I pray that when you experience your next loss you have Jess Hinds, or some sensitive soul like her, to help you grieve properly. In the absence of such saving assistance, the next best medicine will be to read (or to have read) "On Grief and Grieving" and "Life Lessons" by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Keesler. Available at fine bookstores everywhere. Order your copy now and read it before you need it.