What to say to someone who’s grieving: Ellie

Courtesy of The Star.com | By Ellie | Originally Posted 05.31.2014 | Published 11.11.2017

Say whatever conveys the level of friendship you have with the living or whatever expresses the respect you had for the departed.

In Bali, the owner of a homestay invited my husband and me to his aunt’s funeral — along with what seemed like the entire village.

We joined a procession into a tent where the elderly woman’s body lay in an open casket, then walked to the cremation site where she was placed on the burning pyre. Her ashes were later scattered in the nearby river.

Unlike at funerals, wakes, shivas and viewings I’d attended in Canada, there was no one at this funeral that I had to console. The Balinese considered the event a celebration.

For me it was a good thing because I’d had difficulty, as a young adult, finding the right words to say about a death.

I cried too easily and felt I made mourners feel worse. Once, when trying to express sympathy to a relative whose teenage son had died, I couldn’t speak for sobs. The relative admonished me, saying it was not what she needed at that time.

When my beloved father died suddenly, tragically, in the midst of an active life, then I understood.

Family, friends, even strangers, poured in with their support, their presence, their words. I don’t remember what they said, only that I valued every statement that meant, “I care.” About him. About my loss.

Since then, I’ve learned how better to navigate the situation. I show up, I call, I send cards, donate to selected charities, bring food, if appropriate. I say whatever conveys the level of friendship I have with the living or whatever expresses the respect I had for the departed.

What matters to mourners is that you care. If you’re very close, a hug is the universal strong, silent gesture of support.

If you’re not a relative or close friend, “My condolences” says you acknowledge the person’s loss and their sorrow, whether it’s at the funeral or when seeing the bereaved for the first time back at the office, or anywhere.

There are things you should not say, unless you know the mourner well enough to be certain they’re appropriate.

“He’s in a better place,” is something a faith leader can pronounce with spiritual conviction, or that the religious-minded find soothing. But as one grief-stricken person put it, “I think a better place is here, alive. I wanted understanding of the great void left, that he was suddenly gone.”

An adult daughter, whose mother died unexpectedly, said this statement made her cringe: “Your mother wouldn’t want you to cry.” She believed her mother, whom she considered her best friend, would want her to be heartbroken about her death.

So, too, “Be strong.” The woman was devastated and felt she didn’t have to pretend otherwise.

She believed it was fine for those closest to her to encourage her to recover her will to get back to work, and thus “be strong” to surmount a depression, but not for others to assess her grief. Especially not at the funeral.

Every faith, ethnicity, community has its own approach to death and mourning. In our diversity, we befriend and work with people of many backgrounds. What’s common is the need for human sustenance at the time of loss.

Some cultures do it with food, alcohol, and humour-laced anecdotes and eulogies. Others prefer solemn hymns from viewing to burial.

But almost always, it’s the gathering that matters most. If you know the traditions will be very different, learn what they are, and accept that they’re right for those affected.

Say something that shows you care. Then listen. The shock of losing a loved one is slowly calmed, as people tell their stories of how it happened, and then recount the events and dreams they once shared.

Read Ellie Monday to Saturday. Email ellie@thestar.ca or visit her website, www.ellieadvice.com.


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