Thursday, February 27, 2014

Use Your Words

After a death in the family, friends, co-workers, clients, and neighbors don’t know what to say.

I get it. When I’m the friend, co-worker, client, or neighbor, I’m either tongue-tied or babble. Neither’s pretty, but pretty’s not important; making a connection matters.

Spit out that stilted “Sorry for your loss,” and be unable to force another word past your lips. It’s okay. The thought counts, as does the fact you drove an hour in lousy weather.

Tell the story that depicts the deceased as the class clown, office cut-up, or rebel in a suit and tie. You’re brightening the atmosphere and showing the family a side of their loved one they’ve forgotten or never knew. Babble on because the mourners sense the urgency behind your story and know you must get it out before its message is lost forever.

Sometimes, distraction is the better part of valor. My friend Sue had the presence of mind to share her recent kitchen-remodeling woes with me. Her integrated-sink-that-wasn’t leaked on her floor and drenched her shoes. Maybe I shouldn’t have laughed, but I did, and it felt good.

Avoid one-upmanship and don’t point out your loved one died younger, after a longer illness, and in worse pain. Chances are the bereaved know those things and understand that crossing the threshold to a funeral home forced you to relive your loss. Unfortunately, right now, we don’t have a lot of comfort to give. In another week or two, we’ll be able to listen.

For years, I’ve opted to attend funerals rather than wakes and have gone to graveside services rather than stop in while a family is sitting shiva. Why? Because I thought I was intruding on private time. I was wrong. Families need the one-on-one connection with friends and acquaintances. I’m kicking myself.

Next week’s blog post will NOT be about death. I promise.

Meanwhile, a question: When you’re nervous or upset do you get tongue-tied or babble?


Liz Flaherty said...

I'm sorry. I haven't been by for a few weeks, I guess, and I didn't know. So now I'm one of those who don't know what to say. Only that I've enjoyed getting to know your father's daughter on this blog--he and your mother must have raised good people. And I'm so glad for the laughter--both what you've had and what I'm remembering now, too. Blessings.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

You use words beautifully, Liz. Thank you.

Jennette Marie Powell said...

I'm a babbler. But one thing a lot of people say that I don't is the old "Let me know if there's anything I can do." Because if there is, they won't be able to think of what. Better to offer something specific.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

You're right, Jennette, and, again, I'm kicking myself for all the opportunities I missed in the past to do something for a grieving friend. Offer something specific, like a ride to the post office, or go ahead and buy a couple of sheets of stamps. Offer to shovel snow or just do it. Offer to cut the grass, keep an eye on the house, take the trashcan to the curb, or whatever. I've learned so much.

Lark Howard said...

Finding the right words when someone has sustained such a loss is always hard. I tend to keep quiet, but often write a brief note because I can edit myself. I'll keep in mind your suggestions of ways to do things for people--and remind myself that an expression of friendship can be any thoughful gesture.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Hi, Lark,
Oh, boy, do I like to edit myself. That's the writer's gift and curse, isn't it?

An expression of friendship IS any thoughtful gesture, and your comment qualifies. Thank you.

Patricia Rickrode w/a Jansen Schmidt said...

I babble all the time usually when I'm in an uncomfortable setting and I can tell that those around me are also feeling uncomfortable. I tell stupid jokes or make fun of myself just to "cut the ice," so to speak. I hate just sitting around in awkward silence.

I also think that, now that I've lost someone very close to me, it's so much easier to talk to others experiencing the same thing. Because, now I KNOW how they're feeling and what they're going through and what they need. Yes, it's okay to laugh. Yes, it's okay to share your own experience. Yes, it's okay to cry with them. Just being there, a warm body with a human heart, matters.

You'll be talking about this for the rest of your life and others will share with you. It's simply a part of the circle of life. Don't ever stop talking about it.

Hugs to you.

Patricia Rickrode
w/a Jansen Schmidt

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Hugs back to you, Patricia. Too bad we had to learn the hard way what to say when people are grieving.

I like your Circle of Life reference and "hear" it set to music.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pat,

I agree with the previous blogger who referenced the circle of life - I did not regard your recent blogs as about death - to the contrary, I understood them as totally about life - a challenging and sad part of life, but about life nevertheless.

You'll need to forgive those people who mentioned that they lost a loved one who died at an earlier age - they're just trying, I think, to let you know that in someway you were luckier than they were because you had your loved one with you longer. Just humans being human, I guess.

I think you said something very profound when you made reference to the difficulty that some people have in coming into a funeral home again, especially if they recently lost a loved one. It is a difficult thing to do. I know some people who couldn't do it and I know others who couldn't even return to their own Church because all they saw were their deceased loved ones there.

Gee, I'm kind of lucky I never met your Dad - he would have seen through my Eddie Haskell facade immediately. I winced when I read that he had that capability.

- Patrick

Anonymous said...

And you do know who Eddie Haskell is, don't you??

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Hi, Patrick,
Of course I forgive those who had to say they lost their father earlier, he suffered longer, etc. I know they were struggling to find a common point and know they were trying to let me know I'm lucky. Nevertheless, as long as I'm giving advice, I figured I'd throw in that one. One of my brother's acquaintances told him he was sorry to hear of his father's passing. When he heard our father was ninety, though, the acquaintance reacted as if we had more than our share of parental time and should man up.

My heart ached for my parents' next-door neighbor whose own father's wake and funeral happened just a few months ago--same funeral home, same church. I know it was tough for her to enter that funeral home. I know the scent of incense was hard for her to bear in church.

My dad had a special radar for Eddie Haskell types and was too smart to be duped by yes-daughters and a yes-son. We didn't get away with much. Sigh.

Coleen Patrick said...

Yes, I definitely get tongue tied when I'm nervous. I've even a few times actually stuttered. Yikes. Knowing what to say to comfort can be so difficult. I like what you wrote about someone telling you stories about your dad. For me I remember that felt like a much needed connection. Thinking of you, Pat.