Loss Is Everyone’s Business
Adults are amused at the childish horror of a toddler losing their blanket. Parents smile when they anticipate that the two-year-old is not going to like giving up being the baby of the family when the new baby arrives. Yet Adjusting to loss is a fact of life.
Beginning with the loss of the safe, warm environment of the womb until the news that one will soon lose their physical life, our journey contains various levels and degrees of loss. Nobody really wants to experience loss, pain, heartache, disappointment, grief or mourning. The truth, however, emerges that they are all a part of human existence. These things will happen to all of us at some point.
The bigger question concerning loss that we all encounter on a regular basis is, “What do you say to a friend or loved one when they experience severe loss?”
Most of us have a cliché or two that we blurt out in a nervous effort to get the moment over with. Unfortunately common statements like, “They are in a better place” or “I know how you must feel” really don’t do much for the pain the griever feels. I learned from personal experience that few would-be comforters are comfortable with helpful statements like “Your heart must really be hurting right now.”
My first devastating encounter with grief came through the death of my wife. I was in my late 30s, administrator and teacher at a college and parenting four young children. I didn’t know a human could hurt that much. It was all so new to me and I had no idea that some of my viewpoints about deep mourning were so off base. The “hole in my soul” haunted me.
In desperation I became a student of grief. And along the way I discovered that understanding a few of the basics about the grieving process (i.e. a broken heart) could help others know what to say to those who were encountering one of the many losses life throws at them.
Grieving is not only normal, it is essential. This knowledge applies to those who make up a support circle around the griever. Suppose you cut your arm. It bleeds. Loss is a cut and grief is the natural result. A cut requires time and attention to heal. It may need another person to help care for it. Ignoring the cut can lead to infection. Similarly thwarted grief can cause issues that will surface sooner or later. And grief is best processed with the help of friends or relatives.
Just like First-Aid 101, there are things that can be learned. Good friends need to understand that the list of losses that merit being classified as “grievable” is much larger than many would admit.
One of the dominant methods, which is vastly ineffective, of dealing with grief and loss is avoidance. Our default ways of coping with grief by changing the subject, stuffing it down, explaining it away in a feeble effort to prevent grief’s symptoms hurts the griever more than you realize.
Beware of implying that a mourner should “snap out of it” too quickly. “This is behind you now,” and “It’s time to get on with your life,” are both comments that fall into that category. Prematurely stated observations to that effect can do more harm than good. Likewise, opinions that begin with “you should” or even “you will” are not helpful. Transparent statements resonate with grievers: “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.” Listening closely to the bereaved within the first year of a loss can reveal what comments will help them most.
Most people mistakenly think the mourning process is purely an emotional condition, ignoring that it is a physical condition as well. We tend to accept that dying happens among the elderly every day. But it is also true that if you are married, it WILL happen to one of you, eventually. My case is unusual because it not only happened during my younger years, it came again twenty-two years later, when death took my second wife.
The lessons I had gathered from my first wife’s death were unavoidably refreshed. My notes and observations took on a deeper, more refined form.
One close friend admitted to me, “I didn’t know what to say” following months of unexplained silence. Others were just obviously ill-at-ease. But when we’d talk and I explained what it was like in the grieving process and how I could have been helped, their responses were receptive. I began to see that most people, whether friends or family or in professional capacities, really did want to connect with a person in grief, but fear, ignorance or verbal clumsiness held them back.
I sensed a deep compulsion inside me, “Don’t hoard your lessons.” Requests for written versions of my story and lessons mounted. And my friend’s awkward admission became the title of my book, I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY: Being a Better Friend To Those Experiencing Loss.
(Dr. David Knapp is the founder of Grief Relief Ministries and is a national conference and seminar speaker. He has served as a college professor and president, and has been a personal counselor. Dr. Knapp and his wife Crystal live in Mesa, Az. He can be reached for a booking at 866-596-0470 or through his web page. His book can also be ordered online. www.griefreliefministries.com/book )