Always the first reaction when someone knows that you’ve lost someone. And, all things considered, I don’t think it’s a bad reaction at all. But if you do want more of an idea of what I think you should say (because clearly I am an oracle of all death and bereavement now) read on.
First off, I want to point out that this post was inspired by the video below, which was part of the Jezebel’s ‘ask a mortician’ series. It also covers such gripping questions as ‘Can you tattoo a body after death?’ and ‘What happens to dead bodies in space?’.
I will admit that the biggest reason I like the video so much is because I think the woman is one of the coolest people I’ve ever met-but-not-actually-met on the internet. But she also has some interesting points as well as being super cool.
Obviously suicide come with its own set of issues that are sometimes different to other bereavements. I think if you loose somebody to suicide you worry that people may not be as sympathetic because of the element of choice involved. Luckily, I’ve found this has not been the case but it was something I was concerned about when my brother died.
In fact, in general, I have found that most people’s natural reactions are usually comforting and appropriate and I think that, on the whole, people worry about offending or saying the wrong thing far too much. But, in my experience, some people do come out with some corkers when looking for the right words to say in an uncomfortable situation. So if you want some advice on what I think then this is it:
All of this advice is based on my own thoughts and feelings. People do react to grief in very different ways and in different ways at different times. For example, cracking jokes about death or suicide is probably not a very good idea when somebody has recently lost someone. But I know that for a few people, sometimes, this is fine and helps you feel that you’re still in tune with other people and not living in some stratosphere of your own.
What you should say is also completely dependant on how close you are to the person who is bereaved. If you only know them in passing, definitely do not start cracking jokes. They’ll just think you’re an inconsiderate ****.
Say something – As the video said, the worst thing you can say is nothing. And if you’re sitting there thinking ‘Should I send a message/card/text?’ then the answer is ‘Yes, you should.’ It’s amazing how much comfort I took from all the short messages and small gestures of support in the weeks after Nathan died. A simple ‘Thinking of you’ is usually enough, and perhaps an invitation to talk, if you know the person a bit better. It’s also courteous to make sure you say something if you run into the person shortly following a death in order that they just know that you are aware of it. Otherwise they face a horrible guessing game of what exactly the reply should be when you ask them ‘how are you doing?’; Do they say ‘I’m holding up, I’m as ok as I can be’ or do they say ‘Did you not hear, my brother jumped off of a bridge?’. See the dilemma there…
To assume makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’…but mostly you – This is perhaps more difficult to put into action than other advice because you do it subconsciously. A guy is seen walking across the Orwell bridge in a state that worries two vehicle drivers enough to call the police. Three minutes later the police are there, but the guy is nowhere to be seen. In a matter of hours a body is found in the river that matches the description of the person that was seen. Seems pretty obvious? Not necessarily to the family who have no sign that the person they loved had any intention of taking their own life. Not even to the Coroner in the inquest who ruled an open verdict and not one of suicide. Of course it is ok to think that the person grieving would have considered the possibility that it was suicide but do not just assume that they hold it as a full gone conclusion. Because they will have considered every other possibility also.
Do not judge – This is similar to the above point but it is more specifically about judging people rather than the situation. And it doesn’t just mean not judging the person who you are speaking to. It means not judging their family. And definitely not judging the person who chose to take their own life. The way I feel is that, quite frankly, unless you are one of the four other people who lived with Nath for most of his life I am pretty sure that your opinion on how selfish he was, or on how much he was suffering, is less valid than mine. So keep it to yourself.
Feel free to ask questions, but do not expect an answer – Sometimes when somebody has lost someone they actually want to talk about it and, if you ask questions, it suggests that you are not too uncomfortable hearing about it. However, this can be dodgy ground, just bear in mind the previous advice about not judging or assuming. I think the trick is to make the questions as open as possible so that the griever can talk as much or as little about it as they want to. And definitely do not just ask questions to satisfy your own morbid curiosity.
Consideration – This one sounds obvious but you would be surprised how quickly some people seem to forget that you’ve just told them that your brother died of suicide. No matter how long after the death, every time somebody makes a flippant comment on how they would ‘kill themselves’ if they had hair like that, or that they would ‘slit their wrists’ if they had to sit through a certain film or they think that you should just ‘go jump off a bridge’ you can guarantee that somebody who has lost a loved one to suicide is thinking about that experience. People use these kinds of phrases all the time. I know that, personally, it can make me feel like a social outcast if I think that those around me are drastically modifying their behaviour and chatter because of what has happened. Especially at one year on. But, if you’ve literally just been talking to me about what happened with my brother, and then in the next few sentences go on to make a flippant comment about ending your own life without even acknowledging that you realise this makes you a bit of an idiot, than you are more than a bit of an idiot.
And sometimes, you can just be unlucky; if it’s the eighth time that day I’ve had somebody tell me their going to jump off a bridge, it can all get a bit too much. So just think a little bit before you open your mouth. It just shows you’re aware and you care about not upsetting the person in front of you.
Do not expect to get it right - Because the person you are speaking to does not expect you to say something that will make everything seem better. The main thing they want to see is that you care. And, as I have said, everybody reacts in different ways so there is no set thing you should say to somebody who is grieving. Just in case you don't get sarcasm, I am clearly not an oracle on death and bereavement. Because nobody is really.
Some of you who saw me soon after my brother's death may be playing a game of 'Oh, no, what did I say?'. But really, unless you said something particularly profound and comforting, chances are I don't remember what you said! So it appears shock can cancel out most of what you say anyway so there really is know need to worry.
I will update you all on my challenge by giving you a full review of Bill Bryson's novel soon. I just felt like this is the blog I wanted to do today.