Thursday, August 15, 2013

Silence Is Rarely Golden, but the Alternative Is Often Mercurial

Loading mercury with a pitchfork
   your truck is almost full. The neighbors
   take a certain pride in you. They
        stand around watching.
-Richard Brautigan

Mercury is difficult to handle (especially with a pitchfork, as Richard Brautigan understood), and dangerous as well. The potential for damage to yourself or others recommends we avoid it if at all possible.

That’s how many of us feel about talking to the bereaved. And so we opt for silence. I hope to change that.

A good friend, socially-adept, mutually acquainted with a couple enduring incredible distress, explained again last week that he had not called or visited them. “I don’t know what I would say,” was his well-reasoned motivation. Others have felt the need to say something, anything, and with unfortunate results. Those facing great difficulties, especially bereavement (“having experienced a significant loss, usually through the death of a loved one”), hear some truly amazing things.

If our words might be damaging, then silence should be the safer choice…except that it’s deadly. The echo of the past often deafens those in grief and mourning, disabling them from hearing a balance of the valued relationship and the reality of its loss. It helps to speak aloud past memories, along with today’s grief. But if all their friends are more fearful of speaking than they are of silence, they sit alone, searching for signs of continuity in their lives.

For a moment, imagine yourself speaking to a friend who has experienced a significant loss—and as you realize that you don’t know what you might say, consider also that silence is among the least effective alternatives. “But I might say the wrong thing.” Yes. That’s very true. In fact, those who are sure they know “the right thing to say” are often oblivious to how wrong they are. So, I would like to offer you two tools I find helpful.

Since one of the most helpful activities of mourning is reminiscence, the first tool is to simply go and listen. Simple questions are most helpful in starting the process. I serve many bereaved individuals and families. Most of them I am meeting for the very first time in the midst of one of their least-social moments. I ask, “What should I know about your circumstances that would help me serve you best?” For closer friends, I have asked, “What have you found yourself thinking about?” or “What are you feeling today?” (Remember, “How are you feeling?” suggests they tell us, “Fine, thanks.”) It doesn’t take much to start the conversation.

Second, though, since even when we’re committed to asking simple questions and then simply listening, there are so many things that sound so right…until we actually say them. I have found it helpful to catalog “The Wrong Things to Say.” So, if it helps motivate you to go and listen, then I’ll gladly share that list with you, so that you at least have a map of as much of the mine-field of well-intentioned platitudes as I’ve discovered so far. (I just learned a new one last Friday. It’s a beaut! You’ll find it at the end of the list.)

‘Til then, I remain…

Your servant for Jesus’ sake (II Corinthians 4:5),

Wm. Darius Myers, Death Pastor

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