Seven Mistakes I Made with a Friend in Grief
Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
No one is perfect. The mistakes you are about to read were those I made long before I began to learn from bereaved people what helped and what didn’t. Back then, after my faux pa, I would always say, “I was only trying to help.” So, here it goes, my big seven:
Mistake #1: “I forgot.
My friend, Linda, called to ask about a Living Will for her father who was close to death. I gave her the information and went on with my life—until a month later she called to tell me he died and asked, “Where have you been while I was dealing with all this?” I found myself wanting to put it back on her saying, “Well, you could have called me.” which is true. But it’s also true that we have busy lives and we forget things—which, in cases as serious as this, is a mistake.
Lesson learned: Write it down, stick it in my phone, put it on my calendar—anything, but remember to check in.
Mistake #2: “I’m sorry he’s dying.”
I heard that a friend I’d lost contact with had a son who was losing his battle with cystic fibrosis. Within minutes after hearing this sad news I called and without thinking said, “I wanted to call. I heard your son was drying.” The next sound I heard was her bursting into tears followed by a phone slam. She was living in another city at the time so I did not see her for nearly 30 years until she was back in town. Here she was sitting at our dining room table. I decided to take the plunge and nervously brought up the incident. She looked at me, saying, “Bob, I don’t have any memory of that.” Wow. The guilt I’d been carrying all those years suddenly washed away.
Lesson learned: Never say “dying” or “terminal.” Instead say, “How is your son doing?” or “I heard about your son. What do the doctors say?” And, after you get an answer, follow it up with, “How are you doing?”
Mistake #3: “I’m like you.”
When we see someone hurting, we may be tempted to search for ways to identify with their pain. One day while getting the mail, my neighbor was getting his. When I innocently asked how he was doing, he responded, “My aunt has breast cancer” My thoughtless ready-to-be-supportive response was, “Oh, my cousin had breast cancer, too.” Once we feel we’ve made the “connection,” we may decide that it’s OK to tell our story, so they can learn something from our valuable experience.
Lesson learned: Don’t go there. It’s their loss, their grief, their turn. While it may be OK to just mention that you’ve had a similar loss, quickly turn it back to the person: “I’m sorry to hear this. My cousin had breast cancer, too. Tell me about what you guys are going through.” Your job in supporting a bereaved person is to listen to their story without imposing yours.
Mistake #4: “Don’t cry.”
I remember as a young guy that I could not stand another person’s tears. If my mom started to cry—I’m outta’ there. One time a female college friend stopped me as I was coming out of class and began telling me about the death of her best friend. I still have a clear memory of standing there saying to myself, “I can’t take this. How can I stop her and leave?” Looking back, I’m sure my friend must have picked up my avoidance vibes and perhaps thought, “Well, he’s obviously no help.”
Lesson learned: Don’t ever say: “Don’t cry.” When a person is hurting, our job is to let that person be in pain. As the poem says, Let’em cry until they’re dry. When people we care for are in pain, we feel some of their pain. Our job is tolerating that pain despite the fact that our brain is desperately trying to find some way to stop it.
Mistake #5: “Don’t feel….”
Several years ago, a colleague said he felt guilty because he didn’t realize that his 19-year-old son was showing early sign of leukemia. When he said, “I can’t believe that I missed the signs. What kind of father am I?” I responded with something like, “Don’t feel guilty. You can’t blame yourself for not picking up all the signs.” Here’s another. Following her husband’s death, when my sister said she was so upset she wanted to sue the hospital, I started to say, “Don’t be angry. They did the best they could.”
Lesson learned: Guilt, anger and all the other grief reactions are feelings. There is no such thing as a wrong feeling. As tough as it may be, our job is to let bereaved people feel whatever they feel.
Mistake #6: “Everything happens for a reason.” “It was God’s will.” ‘It’s time to move on.”
Yes, here they are, just a few of the infamous clichés that typically make bereaved people feel worse. In my feeble effort to “make things better” these words have slipped from my lips.
Lesson learned: Looking back I realize that never did the recipient of these clichés respond with, “Oh, thank you. I feel much better now.” What can we do? Take every one of these clichés and relegate them to the junkyard of bad advice.
Mistake #7: If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.
Oh, I bet you’ve heard this one before. I remember saying this to the wife of a neighbor just after her husband’s funeral. I didn’t know her well and meant it at the time, but like many of us, I got busy and my life as a married person went on while she coped with her grief and her new life as a widowed person.
Lesson learned: You know the lesson on this one. I had two choices: (1) Don’t say it unless I mean it or (2) Say it and then follow up with action. When we look into the eyes of a bereaved person, we are tempted to say anything to ease their pain. Don’t burden them with the task of finding something you can do. We are creative beings with the ability to come up with all kinds of things to help a person in grief: send a text, bring a flower, mow a lawn, send a card, mail a picture, remember a birthday, tell a story. Don’t ask, just do.
So, there they are: the big seven—or my big seven. What are yours? People in grief need us. In their time of need our job is to try the best we can by learning from our past mistakes and from the mistakes of others. I hope, by reading about my mistakes, you can be supportive to the next person in grief who comes into your life.