St. Paul tells us to “mourn with those who mourn.” It’s worth noting that he did not say “show others how to mourn.” While it is probably a good idea to never tell people how to feel, grief, for some reason, especially brings out the didactic in some of us.
I had noticed this tendency before, mostly in crime documentaries, where law enforcement officers would say with certainty that a suspect was not mourning the way a wife, husband, child, parent, etc. should. As a fairly private introvert, these statements always made me nervous, wondering if one day, I too would become a suspect because I didn’t wail or cry appropriately at the death of a loved one.
But in real life, this telling other people how to grieve has less to do with accusing them of a crime than hoping to provide comfort. I got a close-up view of this last week when a friend’s husband died. There were many well-meaning statements that meant to comfort, but missed their marks:
- I know you don’t want him to suffer and are ready to let him go. (In fact, my friend wasn’t ready to let her husband go. And the unintentional inference that, by wanting to keep him with her, she was willing to let him suffer didn’t help at all.
- It’s not healthy to hold back your tears. You need to cry it out. (This occurred when my friend stated her intention of not crying in public. For some, crying is easily done and provides catharsis. Others of us need to maintain some control, at least in public.)
- Look at the puppy! (Okay, this was mine, trying to distract my friend from a sad moment by having her look at her new puppy chewing a shoe or a purse.)
One night as I was leaving, she said, “This is a like an awful nightmare that won’t end.” Then she smiled sadly and patted my hand. “But a nightmare with wonderful people in it.” It was then I knew that as helpful and supportive as we were all trying to be, we couldn’t make this nightmare end for her. Her pain was her own. We couldn’t feel it for her.
So for once, I just shut up and tried not to fix something that couldn’t be fixed.