April 11, 2010 — Pat Bertram

I mentioned to a friend that, after receiving notification of my mate’s death, few people from a certain online group sent an acknowledgement, and she said perhaps it was because they did not know what to say. This is probably true. Most comments posted to me on the various threads began with: “I don’t know what to say.”  Of course, being writers, these people followed that statement with very touching responses, but I also received touching remarks from non-writers. To be honest, all responses mean a lot to me — grief is such an isolating experience, that any indication of concern helps remind me that people do care, that perhaps I’m not totally alone after all.

If you cannot think of anything eloquent to say in the face of another’s grief, say something simple. Say, “I’m sorry.” Say, “I’m thinking about you.” Say, “My heart goes out to you.” Say, “I shed tears for you.” And there is always the standard, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”

If you knew the deceased, talk about him. The bereaved (a terrible word, so namby-pamby and doesn’t really connote how truly bereft one is  after such a loss) will find comfort in your memories. If you didn’t know him, you can talk about your own experiences with the death of a loved one, though be aware that grief piled upon grief might be a bit overwhelming for the one left behind. Despite that, the stories people share with me make me realize that though the pain seems impossible to live through, it will eventually become tolerable. At least, I hope it will.

Many people told me to “hang in there,” but although well-meaning it is not, perhaps, the best thing to say to someone who is grieving. Depression is a part of the process, and “hanging in there” makes one wonder “hanging from what? And where?” (If you are one of those who used this expression, I hope I’m not hurting your feelings. Rest assured I took your words in the spirit offered, and was pleased that you thought of me.)

If you truly cannot find words of your own, share a poem that helped you get through your grief. Although grief is such a personal experience, the emotions portrayed in poetry are universal.

If you can’t think of something to say immediately, but eventually think of the perfect thing, say it then. It is never too late. Grief lasts a very long time. As the days, weeks, months pass, others forget, but the person who is grieving doesn’t. Any indication that you are thinking of her in her sorrow is comforting.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what you say. Extending a bit of comfort, showing that you haven’t forgotten, showing that you care — those are the important things.

Summer is gone, of course, but just like the rest of us stalwart blooms, the summer roses are hanging on, at least out here at the edge of the desert. Faded, perhaps. Maybe even lonely. But hanging on.

Sometimes I get embarrassed, occasionally even annoyed when people tell me how admirable I am because I don’t see it. (Though I used to, oddly enough, back when I was going through those first horrendous years of grief.) Now I’ve come to see that I’ve only done what everyone else does in the face of great trauma, angst, and turmoil — hang on to that last shred of sanity, humanity, honor, or whatever you want to call it. (Not dignity, that’s for sure. Dignity goes out the door when seemingly never-ending pain and tears enter.) Sometimes when we are fighting our way through turmoil, it feels as if we are surrendering to our worst side because we live in a culture that seems to revere stoicism — the ability to accept great pain with little affect. And yet, as I learned, hiding pain does not help anyone, though it does let others escape the discomfort of hearing us scream out our agony.

The truth is, we are all stronger that we believe we are, braver than we can imagine, more emotional that we ever expected, and have the ability to pick ourselves up and take another step when all we want to do is dive into oblivion. Sometimes it seems to take forever to go through the trauma of hellish heat, buffeting winds, destructive storms, but then all at once, there you are, still standing in the warmth of a new day.

The last rose of summer.

What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas?

December 15, 2011 — Pat Bertram

Christmas is a hard time of year for those who are grieving. Not only does the festivity of the season remind the bereft of all they have lost, but it’s a time for getting together with loved ones, and the goneness of that one special person seems even more unfathomable when you are alone or alone in a crowd.

Grief makes everyone uneasy. It’s a reminder how vulnerable we really are. How, despite our beliefs, we know so very little of life and death. Even well-meaning people stumble around the bereft, suddenly clumsy in the face of grief, and this unnatural behavior makes the griever feel even more alone. Some people give looks of speculation, as if you are diseased and they’re wondering if they should step away so they don’t catch your illness. Or else they give you wrinkled-forehead looks of sympathy that make you feel even worse.

Shortly after the death of my life mate/soul mate, I noticed how uncomfortable people were around me, and how they wanted to say the right thing but didn’t know what the right thing was, so I offered suggestions in What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving. I can see there might be a special concern about saying the right thing at Christmas, but the truth is, there is no right thing. Nothing you can ever say will bring the bereft what they most need: life to make sense once more. (That might not be what we most want, but it is what we most need.)

If you know the person huggingly well, the best thing is a hug. If you knew the deceased, share a story. “I remember how Bob loved (or hated) Christmas.” Don’t assume that by ignoring the dead you are making things easier for the bereft. We remember, and it’s nice to know that others remember, too. One thing to never say is, “I know how you feel.” You don’t. You can’t. Even if you had a similar loss, everyone’s grief is different, every person is different, and by telling them you know how they feel, you are diminishing the truth of their grief. Also, don’t pressure them to tell you how they feel. Grief encompasses so many different emotions, it’s almost impossible to know how one feels. All you know is that you are in pain.

It seems such an emotional minefield, doesn’t it? But, whether you are family, good friends, or casual acquaintances, there is something you can say, something that is so common and almost rote that no one stops to analyze the words. And still these words manage to convey exactly what you want to say. (In fact, leaving off these words may make the person even worse since they will know how uncomfortable you are with their grief.)

So, what do you say to someone who is grieving at Christmas?

You say, “Merry Christmas.”