Solace from Silence: Comforting the Bereaved

Oct 13, 2005 |Jenny Schroedel

After a death occurs, there are no perfect words. Perhaps the most loving response is a willingness to linger with our bereaved friend beside their loss.

One night when I was in high school, my mom came into my room to tell me that my friend Sara's father had died. I didn't know what to do, so I called another friend who had recently lost her father. She said, "Get in your car and go over there."

So that's what I did, along with a few of Sara's closest friends. In the car nobody spoke. None of us had firsthand experience with death and were wary about entering a home where death had passed through and taken somebody we knew.

When we arrived Sara was in her snowy front yard with her beagle, Macintosh. As we approached she opened her arms as if she had been expecting us.

Just Be There

Sara led us to her room, lit candles and asked us to pray with her. I'm struck now by how odd this was, considering that we were uptight college-prep school kids who rarely spoke about spirituality. But we followed Sara's lead, held hands in a circle and let her initiate prayers.

Years later, I got another phone call. This time, a friend's newborn baby had died from a genetic abnormality. My friend and her husband were living in Canada and had no family nearby. I remembered the advice given to me years before and asked my friend if she wanted me to come. She said, "Oh yes, please." I felt a little awkward in their home, sleeping on a sofa a few feet from the room where their baby had died. I was afraid I'd invaded their privacy, but the baby's father, a Moroccan Muslim, put me at ease when he told me that my presence reminded him of his childhood. In his community, when a person died, everyone went to the home. They would stay up all night sharing food, memories and grief.

In America, friends and family offer their support by attending the funeral, writing notes and baking casseroles. But afterward, we're often left to grieve alone. Mother Theresa said that Americans suffer from the worst form of poverty — loneliness. This is felt acutely after a death.

Listen Empathically

There is a reason that many of us pull back: death makes us tongue-tied. C.S. Lewis described his friends' awkwardness about his wife's death in A Grief Observed.

"An odd byproduct of my loss is that I am aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet," wrote Lewis. "At work, at the club, in the street, I see people as they approach me trying to make up their minds whether they'll 'say something about it' or not."

There isn't that much to say. We can gently open the door to conversation with, "I'm sorry about your loss." But after we open that door, even a crack, we need to be open to the possibility of an authentic response.

At seminary, I learned about empathic listening in a counseling class. Empathic listening is a form of active engagement where you silence your own ideas and try to paraphrase back what's been said to you.

When we role-played in the classroom, one student would be the talker and the other the listener. These early conversations felt awkward, but they demonstrated what empathic listening is supposed to look like. They went something like this:

Jane: "I don't know what's wrong with me — I can't eat, I can't sleep, I barely have the energy to brush my teeth."

Joe: "You feel listless."

We thought that if we tried our new "technique" on friends they'd laugh. But the exact opposite occurred — people would open up, as if they'd just been waiting for a chance to speak and be heard.

Empathic listening is difficult. For most of us, the temptation to insert our own ideas and stories into the conversation is fierce. We have to silence our egos repeatedly. A neighbor whose father recently died asked me why people always rush to say something when she mentions her dad. "Why can't they just be silent for a moment and leave it at that?" she said.

Don't Rush It

Like Job, who not only suffered massive hardship but also suffered the ongoing commentary of his peers, my neighbor has experienced some strange reactions. When she mentioned that her dad's funeral was this past weekend, one friend said, "Wow, it sure took a long time for you to get him buried." My neighbor was taken aback. "That response made me feel like I was grieving my dad too long. Sort of a 'Haven't you moved on, yet?'"

We tend to be uneasy with long processes and overt displays of grief. Ancient religions, however, create space for emotions woven through many seasons. Within Observant Judaism the entire first year after a death is devoted to several phases of mourning. During the first seven days those closest to the deceased don't work, bathe, have their hair cut, read the Torah or have sex. It intrigues me that Judaism sanctions a break from those things that a grieving person might naturally be inclined to skip.

Within the Eastern Orthodox Church, funerals are followed by 40 days of remembrance and prayer. Similarly, after an Orthodox woman gives birth, she's not expected to attend church or do much else for 40 days while she bonds with her newborn. I like the idea of a 40-day pause after something as significant as a death or a birth because it takes time to make sense of our rearranged lives.

A Grief Observed chronicles this journey toward understanding. Lewis experiences a cycle of restlessness, rage, grasping, surrender and serenity, followed by fresh tears and disbelief. Over the course of the book, Lewis comes to understand that he will never really "get over" Joy's death.

Lewis compares being a widower to being an amputee. "He will probably have recurrent pains in that stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones, and he will always be a one-legged-man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed."

Speak No Platitudes

"The worst thing is not the sorrow or loss or the heartbreak," writes Richard John Neuhaus. "Worse is to be encountered by death and not to be changed by the encounter." Death changes us in hundreds of subtle and pronounced ways. It is difficult to speak to the significance of this encounter, and most bereavement cards fall woefully short.

It's better to say nothing than to say something that minimizes the pain as so many of these cards do. Memories aren't much of a comfort when you've lost a 2-day-old baby and time doesn't seem to heal wounds as much as it slowly numbs us to them.

After a death occurs, there are no perfect words. Perhaps the most loving response is a willingness to linger with our bereaved friend beside their loss. "There is a time simply to be present to death — whether one's own or that of others — without any felt urgencies about doing something about it or getting over it," wrote Neuhaus.

Be still, writes the Psalmist, and know that I am God. It is in stillness that we know, in stillness that we hear, and in stillness that we love.

Copyright 2005 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.

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