Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Grief Cliches - a brief commentary

When you lose someone you love, you hear a lot of cliches. I've spoken my share of them before, too, without knowing really why, except that there seems to be an understanding - from hearing them over and over - that those are the things you say to people who are grieving. Let's talk about those for a second.

A few of these cliches are true....

"I'm so sorry for your loss."
"Your _____ was a good person."

You probably are sorry for their loss. Saying so is perfectly acceptable and nice to hear. Sometimes there is NOTHING else to say to someone except that you are sorry for whatever unfortunate event just took place. So say it. It never hurts.

If their father, mother, brother, sister, spouse, child, etc, was a good person... tell them. Saying so might make them cry harder, but it's a good cry. It reinforces that they are not alone in their grief, it acknowledges the dead person's presence will be missed - not just by them, but by others. It reminds that a good life was lived, even if it was cut short.

My dad was a good person. Hearing from all the people whose lives he affected has meant a great deal to me. I take great pride in the number of people who had tremendous things to say about him, or amazing stories to share with us. It has enlightened me to this other side of him we sometimes or never got to see in action: who he was outside of our family. It reminds me that we are not the only people who miss his presence here on earth, or whose lives have been drastically altered by his absence. It feels good to know that we are not alone in our grief, in our missing him.

Most of these cliches, however well-meaning, are just inappropriate....

"At least they aren't suffering anymore."
"They are in a better place."

I'll lump these two in together, because of the whole religion issue. If it's appropriate to comfort someone by telling them their loved one is in a better place, OKAY - your call. If their Faith guarantees that they are healed by death, set free from suffering upon passing over, SUPER - maybe this is an okay thing to say. However, I can say from experience that no matter how amazing this "better place" might be, or how strong your Faith, it doesn't really make us not want that person back here... on earth.... with us. 

In the midst of grief there is often a lack of reason. It might be reasonable to think "they are at peace" or "they are no longer suffering" and that is an improvement over what their immediate situation was right before they died, therefore I should be relieved or not as sad now that they are gone. But if you love someone, and they die, you miss them and you want them back. End of story. Being reasonable doesn't matter, knowing they are "better off" doesn't heal that wound much faster.

Watching my dad die of cancer wasn't pretty. It was an inhumane amount of suffering. But I cherish every second that I experienced with him during that time, because he was alive. Here. On earth. With us. Yes, he was set free from pain upon death, and I do believe that he is in a place that can't be comprehended by our small and unimaginative minds. At the same time, this isn't as comforting as you might think when you are dealing with the reality of being left behind.


"Time heals all wounds."
Does it? How much time does it take, exactly? I don't think time heals all wounds. In fact, I'm not sure it heals them at all. I think we just grow around them. We change. We look at things differently. We choose to go on living without that person, and that choice changes us. We cope, but the wound doesn't just heal up clean and pretty.

Honestly, in some ways, wounds get worse as time goes on. As time goes on you realize with more and more certainty: that person is NOT coming back. It stops feeling like a surreal experience, or a nightmarish dream, or like they just took a really long trip away with no cell phone or email. You have to stop pretending it didn't happen as you take their names off bank accounts, give birth to children they will never meet, or have family holidays without them. It's not something that is just going to "go away" eventually. It's here to stay. You adjust, but you don't necessarily heal.

As more distance accumulates between September 25 and my present day life, my wounds have not healed. Maybe the bandages hold for longer and longer periods of time, but each time something rips them off... the wound is just as deep and raw as it ever was. The shock is even harsher. No. Time has not healed my wounds.

"Everything happens for a reason."
Don't say this. Just resist the urge. 

Perhaps everything does happen for a reason. In fact, I believe that it does. If I didn't - if most of us did not subscribe to this line of thought - we would probably go insane. But, there is nothing reasonable about early or untimely death to a grieving individual, and this offers zero comfort to someone who is feeling that pain.

No one wants to hear that there is "a reason" for a senseless death. A reason that I should be without my father at the age of 28. A reason that my dad won't be around to see me buy my first house, advise me as I plant my own garden, or hold my babies. A reason that I can never again ask him for advice, or make him proud of me, or give him a hug. 

Even in my sad haze, I can see that beautiful things did come of the whole traumatic experience, that pieces fit together so perfectly only a divine hand could have made them so, that life will go on, and that things happened for a reason. But I don't need to hear you say that. It doesn't make me feel any better.

A simple: "I'm so sorry. Your dad was a good person." will do.