What not to say when a loved one dies

By on January 15, 2009

We do not know how a person will react when the unthinkable happens.

It is hard to know what to say or do for this person.

I have experienced both sides.

I know how hard it is to walk up and speak to someone who is in overwhelming pain they cannot express or dare to understand.

On Jan. 14, 1989, my doorbell rang some time after midnight. My husband, Walter, was working the late shift and I was up waiting for him.

I opened the door to see two policemen who asked me if I have a son by the name of John. I said “Yes, but he isn’t home yet.”

They asked if another member of the family was at home. I told them yes, but I was not going to wake them. My parents were sleeping and so was my son, Dan.

Now came the time for them to tell me the worst news that any parent can bear to hear. They told me that our son, John, had died in a car accident near our home.

It took a long time for me to believe them. I kept saying that maybe someone took his car. After they told me some of the names of the ambulance crew, I knew they had not made a mistake.

The next three days were just a painful blur. I was told where to go and what to do. I had phone calls to make, funeral arrangements to plan and so many more details. Everyone was loving and wonderful.

After the funeral, it was time to deal with everyday life again. Walter went back to work. Dan went back to his classes. Our daughters, Stephanie and Kris, were both newly married and had their own lives to return to. My parents were kind and understanding, giving me as much private time as they could.

Then I was on my own. My first day at the grocery store, trying to get back to normal activity, was now a challenge to me. All the sounds around me were extremely loud and time seemed to move very, very slowly. I was glad no one was there for me to talk to.

On a different day I had a different feeling. My neighbor was in the store. Her son and John were friends. I was so very happy to see her. I approached her to ask how her son was doing. She turned away, pretending not to see me, and walked away very fast. I just stood there feeling very alone. I told myself it was just my imagination and that she really had not seen me. The same thing happened over and over with many different friends and neighbors.

I wanted to shout, “I am not contagious!”

Bit by bit, neighbors and friends began to take the time to talk to me—but without listening to me.

Now I was feeling even more suffocated.

“How are you?” The words came at me. Oh, how much I was willing to tell them. But I was not given the time for a true response.

“You are so very strong.”

“If that happened to me, I would just fall apart.”

“So-and-so fell apart when her child died.”

“I will call you soon.” Oh, how I waited for that phone call.

I would stand and stare at these well-meaning people who just did not get it. That was not what I needed. I would start to feel badly for the person talking to me and tell them, “Yes, I am doing OK.” Then they would walk away feeling better and I would feel even more alone.

For some reason, people also feel that time heals the hurt. One year had passed and they all thought life should be normal for me again.

People are also very uncomfortable with tears. If the tears do not disappear quickly, the person will.

“God needed John for bigger things.”

“John is in a better place.”

“It was God’s plan all along.”

I do not think that God gave me this wonderful boy and then said that He would take him back in 18 years.

There are words and actions that do make a big difference.

When my father died Aug. 31, 2004, at age 91, my friend, Susan, called me and asked me to meet her at a local forest preserve to go for a walk. I love long walks. We did the walking together and I did most of the talking. She was the listener. I came home feeling good.

My friend, Penny, called and arranged to meet me at a restaurant to take me out to lunch. We had a nice lunch and shared stories about my dad and John. I came home with a lighter heart.

Friends, Elizabeth and Marko, came to our house and told funny stories about my dad. That was the most healing experience for me.

When John died, I was working very hard to be OK. One thing that worked for me is “John’s letters.” I have a journal where I write to John about his friends that I meet. I tell him news in the family. It is my way of keeping connected to him.

There is no right or wrong way to deal with grief. I would like to reach out to people and say—Please be a good friend, open your heart and just listen. This is the best gift you can give and, for the bereaved individual, the best to receive.

My family was wonderful, but somewhat overly concerned for me. That was their way of dealing with their grief. Many divorces happen after the death of a son or daughter. Wally and I took turns leaning on each other for support.

In the beginning, I got a lot of help from the Compassionate Friends Group. It is a support group of parents who have lost a child.

Diane is a friend that I met at Compassionate Friends meetings. her daughter Jennifer died in a car accident in February of 1989. Jennifer was also 18 years old. Diane and I can talk about our kids and how we miss them every day. Sometimes we laugh together about fun memories, and at times that same memory will make us cry. That is very much OK because there are no right or wrong feelings. They just are what they need to be. We trust in God that we will see our children again and what a glorious day that will be!

John is still our son, brother, brother-in-law, nephew, cousin, friend and now Uncle John. I love hearing his name. It is rewarding to know that he is remembered into a new generation.

Terry Grumeretz
Elburn