In our culture, however, we do not always deal well with the emotional journey represented by the word "grief." At the outset of grief over the loss of a loved one, we have certain cultural and religious rituals — funerals, memorial services, graveside services — to mark a person's passing, but after such rituals are finished, a person in grief is on her or his own. And for many times of grief, we do not even have initial rituals to acknowledge the loss.
Consequently, when we do encounter someone in grief, unless it is during the very early days, it is someone who has moved from the shock of loss to the great emotional turmoil and pain that follow. These can last for months, sometimes years.
Our challenge is to know what to say or do — or what not to say or do — when we encounter someone in the midst of this difficult emotional journey.
From my own experience after the death of Veta, my wife of 43 years, I gained new perspective on the question of what to say or do. In my recent book, Choosing to Live: Enduring the Loss of a Loved One, I give two examples of interactions that were helpful and instructive to me. The first recounts how a student at Claremont School of Theology, where I was president at the time, helped me deliver some of Veta's clothes to a shelter.
Giving Veta's personal clothing and accessories away (I chose a shelter for battered women) was excruciatingly difficult. As providence would have it, while stopping by my office on my way to the shelter, I encountered one of our students, Beth, who perceived my struggle and simply accompanied me and helped unload the clothes. That ... was a tremendous gift to me.
On that occasion, Beth was wise enough to know that no words could assuage my loss or lessen my deep grief. Instead, she helped me simply by being present to join me in the burdensome task of taking Veta's clothes to the shelter.
The second example relates how two old friends supported me in a similar manner.
For the Christmas holidays, I returned to my home in North Carolina. I was accompanied for the first part of my stay by the same friend George who, with his wife, Linda, had been with me for my return there during the previous summer. We had a great time that Christmas preparing wonderful meals, watching it snow, and generally enjoying one another's company.
When George departed, I spent time reflecting on how important those friends, along with other friends and family, had been in helping me get through my grief. It was not, I thought, anything that they or others said that helped sustain me; it was simply that they had been with me at critical moments. Their unsolicited acts of kindness also helped me when I was most in need of help. Those acts included gathering Veta's clothes, helping me give the clothes away, involving me in activities, and simply staying in touch.
When such loss happened to my friends, I now knew that I couldn't comfort them with words, I would just be present for them as they worked through their grief. It isn't that words cannot be helpful, but no words are sufficient to ameliorate the feeling of loss or replace the grief work one must go through identified by the stages. When I was in the midst of grief, nothing anyone said could suddenly short-circuit the emotional pain. I simply had to deal with my feelings of pain, face the fact of loss, and gradually move on with life.
Neither George nor Linda ever asked me how I was doing, nor did they attempt to comfort me with hackneyed phrases like, "She's in a better place now," "God had a reason for taking her that you can't understand," or even "I know how you feel." They simply gifted me with their presence and talked about normal things, things that focused my thoughts on living and looking forward.
Out of these and other experiences, I have concluded that when someone we know and care about is experiencing deep grief, the best we can do is what Beth, George and Linda did for me: Be present for them and provide them with a sense of normalcy. Talking about the departed is a tricky proposition even if the grieving person initiates the subject. Uttering platitudes does not help because platitudes ignore (and sometimes exacerbate) the pain and, of course, they do not bring a loved one back. If the griever talks about the one lost or about her or his pain, it is better just to listen and express compassion.
The Rev. Jerry Campbell is a retired United Methodist clergyman and former president of Claremont School of Theology. His book Choosing to Live: Enduring the Loss of a Loved One (Archway Publishing), is available at www.jdcbooks.com.