Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Gracious Bereaved: Why sincerity in our hearts trumps the stupidity of our words

It's cute, at first.

My friend explained it this way. The visitor had nearly exhausted her. Pancreatic cancer left her with significantly less stamina than the hour-long visit had required, even though the conversation was primarily a monologue as the visitor related a litany of her own difficulties in the areas of health, relationships, and finances. “At least she knew not to ask, ‘How are you?’” my friend said.

But when I offered my regrets that she had been subjected to all that, my dying friend stunned me. “It was nice to have someone come to visit me.”

In light of that, and some comments on the last two posts, let me reiterate a point or two. First, those things on the list of what not to say? They’re things that have really been said. (I’ve said some myself.) I share them frequently, to dispell your fear of saying the wrong thing. You will, of course. But that no matter how badly you stumble, others have said far worse…and survived.

After awhile, though, it's awkward.
A second restatement, from the first of these three posts, is that questions (Other than, “How are you?”) are better than statements. But even questions are often unnecessary. The bereaved and dying are often longing for someone to sit quietly and listen. Let them know you’re really there (and not looking for the first opportunity to run from the room), prompt them with a question or two if necessary, and listen. “Bearing silent witness to their suffering,” said a friend, “is sometimes all you can do. But it’s often everything they need.” To simply know that someone knows something of our pain can mean more than all the words of all the philosophers, theologians, and Helen Steiner Rice wannabees combined.

Understand, though, that one of the elements of grief is Anger. There are times when the outrage of disease, disability, and imminent death results in lashing out at even those closest to us, even our primary caregivers. Even in those moments, however, the importance of presence still overcomes ridiculously inept statements. And that’s not just because the bereaved and dying are desperate for company.

Praying for a cure...
I was the one in the hospital bed. Widespread systems failures from an unknown cause left me attached to (and invaded by) most of the kinds of tubes and wires owned by Castleview Hospital in Price, Utah. I was conscious, and not terribly glad to be. No one from the congregation I served came to visit. My ministry supervisor, though, had called to assure me that the district office was praying for me. Still, I was feeling a bit desperate for company. But when a local ministry colleague arrived, he didn’t speak at first, clearly aghast at the sight. His eventual question was “How are you?” I managed not to respond verbally. (And it wouldn’t have been “Fine, and you?”)

But I was glad he came to visit. Admittedly, I was desperate for someone who was there to see me, rather than merely the charts, monitors, and reports in which my life had become enmeshed. So, despite incredulity at his question, I realized that I’d asked the same question just as inappropriately. I vowed there and then to try to stop.

And so the list was born. It’s up to “Fifty Things Not To Say to the Bereaved.” There will be more. I will keep showing up, listening, asking questions as necessary, and occasionally opening my mouth only to shock myself at how the sincerity of my heart can result in such stupidity in my words.

I hope not to presume too much upon it, but I do thank God for the graciousness of the bereaved. So far, none of them have thrown me out. And so I go, and listen, and ask questions as necessary, and pray that you find the courage to do the same.

1 comment:

Pastor Greg said...

Listening...actually entering into their stories is so important. I have a bad habit of using someone else's story as a segue into one of my own...but this is probably not one of those times, unless it is to thank the person for how they have impacted my life (or to share how the deceased had been a blessing).

However, I think that next to listening laughing might be the best. However, post surgery I usually have to ask if it is OK to make them laugh as I don't want to make them hurt worse.

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