When Jane Bevans’ 24-year-old husband Brad died, her mother told her to redecorate her apartment in white, presumably to attract a new husband. She also advised Jane to become a flight attendant on an international airline so she could meet a good marriage prospect like Aristotle Onassis. (Jane reminded her mother that Onassis wasn’t flying commercial airlines; he had his own jet.) An aunt of Jane’s had a different but equally astonishing reaction to Brad’s death: "Here's $100. Go buy yourself something nice."
Whenever I write about how to be a friend to a friend who’s sick, my definition of illness also includes people who are “sick at heart,” and foremost in that category are those who are grieving the loss of a loved one.
Many people who’ve experienced mourning have told me stories similar to Jane’s -- incredible anecdotes about friends’ and relatives’ insensitive responses, flat-footed expressions of sympathy and bungled attempts to console.
Here’s are some examples of what NOT to say to the following categories of mourners:
- To a friend whose parent has died: “Think of it this way; your dad won’t be a burden.” Or, “You were always complaining about your mom anyway.”
- To a grieving spouse: “It was worse for my cousin; she was married longer than you were.” Or, “There are other fish in the sea; don’t worry, you’ll meet someone.” Or, “When you’re ready, I have someone to introduce you to.”
- To a parent who’s lost a child: “God must have wanted him.” Or, “Thank heavens you have two other kids.” Or, “It’s been a year now; don’t you think it’s time you reached closure?”
My own mother died when I was fifteen and I still remember the ordeal of listening to some people’s crass or unfeeling reactions. My best advice about how to relate to mourners comes from that long-ago experience:
“Practice active empathy. Do not say to a grieving friend what you would not want to hear if you were in the same tragic place.”
As always, I wish you good health and great friendships.