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Nothing At All

Nothing At All

What do you say to someone when you are greeting them relatively soon after a dear loved one has died? Some of us have been through such a tragedy and the days after the death event are filled with all kinds of swirling emotions. When my wife Lisa died, it changed everything. In the moment of her death, I felt hopeless and profound sadness. I could barely breath as I watched her open her eyes one last time to see me before her body stopped functioning. She smiled. I felt paralyzed. I could not move. I could not think. I almost stopped being. All I can remember was that I kept saying no over and over again. I felt her wrist for the faintest pulse, the slightest bit of hope that this was some sort of nightmare. It was a nightmare, it was just happening while I was awake.

As I stood up and realized that she was dead, I felt like a deeply rooted plant suddenly pulled up out of the ground, my roots exposed to the air and each fiber that dangled in the breeze caused intense emotional pain. It hurt. It hurt badly.

It took six months to realize that life was worth living after her death. I went to psychotherapy. I had panic attacks. I could not listen to the radio or watch the television. I needed to be in extreme silence. Noise bothered me. And everyone I bumped into asked, "How are you doing?" That comment would always be followed by, "She's in a better place now" or "She's not suffering, she's with the Lord." One person asked me if I was dating anyone two weeks after her death. That question was a bit bizarre to me. When I answered no, she asked, "Why not?" Even one of my past staff members asked me why I was so depressed. I wrote her ignorance off to the fact that she had not lost anyone she truly adored. She was young and naive.

So what do we say to those who have suffered a tragic loss? Not all losses are tragic, that is why this question is so difficult to answer. Some losses are welcomed by those who experience the tragedy. They are easy to identify and communicate with. Those people who experience the death of a someone they intensely love with all their heart, all their mind and all their soul cannot even consider themselves as alive after their loved one dies. On that day of mortality, they died with their loved one. They walk through most days in a gray, dark and senseless fog, questioning the very existence of man as a whole and what is so significant about themselves that continue to be granted the gift of life. They do not feel worthy enough to receive the gift of life and many times would have gladly given their life up to save their loved one from dying. These people experience a Christ-like consciousness.

So what do we say to those who have suffered a tragic loss? Whatever you say, it does not matter. Your words are mere words that have no meaning, even if spoken with the deepest sympathy. Those who hear your words cannot find a sliver of space in their minds to recognize anything other than their deep and agonizing sorrow. The sun does not shine, the full moon has no worth, the sound of a baby's laughter is not happy and joyful and the touch of a dear friend cannot sooth the pain. It is painful. It is long lasting grief. Not depression. Grief.

So what do we say to those who have suffered a tragic loss? Do not say you are sorry for their loss. Sorry is a word that is most useful when you have wronged someone or made a mistake of some sort. Sorry coveys the traditional right hand path of dealing with death. It feels cold to all of us who have walked the path of deep sorrow. It rolls off of our minds like a drop of water rolls from a duck's back. The word sorry joins the vast junk yard of other words that have been spoken to the grieving person to somehow relieve the pain. There are rows and rows of sorry in the junk yard, they are in every shape, size and color. Even though the sorrys are abundant, they are useless just like those old worn-out tires piled up at the other end of the junk yard. Do you mention God, heaven, Jesus or any other personal worldview to help make it better? No. Keep God out of it. Death is not a God thing, it is a human thing. If the person who is grieving believes in a personal God, they most often curse God for letting their loved one die. In this moment of extreme emotional and spiritual pain, it is no time to bring up God, salvation through Jesus or any other personal world view of any religious construction whatsoever. Telling someone in this dark gray place that God has a plan and it is unfolding is another bad idea. It sounds as if your selling something on a billboard to encourage more people to join your worldview or go to your church. No one knows if God has a plan especially when someone has loss something so dear that they cannot think of living another day.

So what do we say to those who have suffered a tragic loss? Something simple, light and fluffy. Comment on the weather, your favorite time of year or perhaps some new recipe you are going to try. Ask them about their favorite flowers or if they had a chance to see the hottest movie just released. Their answers will be short and truthful. Regardless of their response, just make sure you do not over stay your welcome. They want to be alone with their thoughts, so let them be alone with their thoughts. If they have questions or need someone to talk to, they will seek the right person out for help. If it is not you, do not take it as a personal insult. Grieving people know who to grieve with and how much. It may be as simple as they cannot tolerate the strong odor of your perfume, or your world view is not in accord with theirs since everything they hold dear has just been shattered. Help them with simple things. Cook healthy food for them. Do a load or two of laundry once in a while to shoulder the burden of their daily grind. Do not text them about your shared grief, it's much too impersonal. Keep it light and stay out of the dark spaces unless you have walked through them yourself. And never say, I know how you feel. Never.

Two weeks after Lisa died, I was mowing my back yard on a bright and sunny day. I was crying as I push the mover up and down the back yard. My neighbor came over to check on me. He had lost his wife to cancer three years earlier. I stopped mowing. He saw me crying. He looked at me and said, "It's okay to cry. I cried for weeks when Joanne died. I've walk the dark path. It'll be okay. Cry all you want. And if you need me, let me know. I'm just next door." He gave me a hug. And then walked away. I started up the mower, continued to mow the lawn and cried some more until I could not cry anymore.

If you have walked in the darkness of a tragic loss, then and only then can you extend a hand to someone in it. Your job is not to save them from it, it is to let them know you walked one and survived. Giving someone permission to cry when it hurts is probably the best blessing you could bestow.

So what do we say to those who have suffered a tragic loss? If you have to ask that question, it is probably best you not say anything at all.

Doc
Posted by Amanda Sanders at 8:18 AM
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