STEPHEN SMITH: Bad Grief: Spare the Bereaved All Those Tired Clichs
Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Rosh Hashanah, New Year's Eve, etc. bring the expectation that we'll be reunited with loved ones, folks we've known all our lives and who are part of what psychologists call our "emotional support system."
You know how it is. When Aunt Becky doesn't show up for Christmas dinner, it's damn difficult to credit the fact that she's gone, forever.
I'm not pretending to know more about coping with grief than anyone else, but I have a few mild suggestions to make to the well-meaning friends and neighbors who come our way after the death of a loved one.
Keep in mind that I'm speaking for myself.
I'd say, too, that none of the following applies in the death of a child -- I don't know how any parent survives such a loss -- or to children who are grieving for a loved one. They require special attention. As for the rest of us, we're adults and should give careful thought to how we relate to those who are in mourning.
I learned a long time ago that there's little we can say to assuage someone's sorrow. I've heard way too many hackneyed explanations and cutesy rationalizations for death, including a father who told his 6-year-old daughter that her mother had "gone to live with Elvis." Good Lord!
But of all the clichs -- and there are a ton of them -- the worst is: "It's God's will." I've never gotten visibly perturbed with someone who said such a thing -- after all, he or she was only trying to help -- but this "God's will" stuff makes me crazy. I don't know whose will it is. No one does.
We all have to do the grieving for ourselves, so when some dufus says, "I know exactly what you're going through" or "I know how you feel" I find it presumptuous and irritating. "I'm sorry" and "my condolences" are direct and adequate. Let it go at that.
I'd add to my list of no-no's "It's a shame that it takes something like this to bring us all together again." When a visitor comes out with that nonsense, I'm tempted to ask, "Where the hell were you the last 20 Christmases when you should have been here?"
I don't mind the occasional maudlin expressions of grief, such as "I know she's up there looking down on us, and she's smiling." After all, life can't be one long lurid smirk. But I have a real aversion to sappy condolence cards and laminated Bible verses. I'd rather read a sentence or two scribbled in magic marker on a crumpled paper bag. "I'm sorry for your loss. Maybe we can play tennis next week -- or whenever you feel like it. Give me a call when you're up to it" is right on the money.
I accept the Southern tradition of visiting the home of the deceased to bring offerings of food.
It's nice to not have to prepare meals when there is so much on your mind, and I like homemade cakes and pies as much as the next guy.
Country ham biscuits are usually a hit, and I'm especially fond of sweet corn pudding and tapioca -- those are real Southern death foods -- but it's inappropriate to bring Kentucky Fried Chicken, French fries, and fast-food burgers. That's the stuff that probably killed Aunt Becky.
I've always thought that funerals are a waste of flowers.
I'd rather you gave the flower money to the needy or to one of those organizations that have succeeded making the world the wonderful place that it is.
But if you've got to send the posies, wait a couple of weeks before having them delivered so the family can enjoy them at their leisure. Anyway, too many leering orchids junk up the house.
And remember this: It's ridiculous to assume that the grieving should not be left alone. Convey your regrets and get out of the way. Folks need time to themselves to work through what's happened. And the sooner they do it the better.
I suspect, finally, that what we tell ourselves about death is as varied as the ways in which we grieve. I'm not a Buddhist, but I always recall the simple words of the Buddha: "Have I not taught you that it is in the nature of all things to pass away?"
That's enough for me.
Contact Stephen Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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