grief suupport Dec 02, 2021
What to Say When Death Steals

By David Knapp

  “Oh no,” I thought, “it is happening AGAIN.”  Following my first wife’s death I saw many friends pull away from me and say NOTHING at all. Then following Judith’s death I realized weeks later that there were close friends that I had not heard from.

    Scott and Diane had become very good friends over the seven years we lived near them.  We attended the same church and many of the same social events during those years. For the days and weeks following my second wife’s death I fully expected a word of some kind from them. Nothing.

   Nine months later we were all attending the funeral of a mutual friend.  At the cemetery I saw Scott and Diane holding hands while they slowly walked my direction with their heads down.  Once in ear shot they explained, “Dave, we tried to write to you many, many times after Judith died. But, we just didn’t know what to say, so we said nothing.  Sorry.”  We embraced and I forgave them. 

   Nobody really wants to experience loss, pain, heartache, disappointment, grief or mourning. The truth, however, emerges that they are all a part of human existence. These things will happen to all of us at some point. Beginning with the loss of the safe, warm environment of the womb until the news that one will soon lose their physical life, our journey contains various levels and degrees of loss.

     Adjusting to loss seems to be a core issue in life. Whether it is the childish horror of a toddler losing their blanket or a child relinquishing their position as baby of the family to a new addition, loss requires confrontation. Every one of us will experience the emotional hurt from grief caused by the loss or death of someone or something they are close to.  How do you cope?

   The bigger question is “Do you know what to say to someone who has just experienced a severe loss?”

     My experiences with loss may seem like an unusual amount to some people. However, I’m reminded of the story about the man who was the sole survivor of the Johnstown Flood. During his life he bragged a lot about that distinction. Upon arriving in heaven he began his boasting until someone said, “So, there is someone here you need to meet. His name is Noah.” Yes, there will always be someone who has gone through more. So, I don’t waste time with pity parties.

   “Till death do us part…” I repeated. Those words seemed to echo throughout the huge college chapel following my promise and then my bride’s commitment. The witnesses of our wedding stood by smiling. Our parents sat with proud looks on their faces. In all honesty, however, I only viewed those words as a symbol of commitment. I did not really think I would experience that part of those important words, let alone do it twice.

   Ruth and I had never been happier than we were that delightful day in July.  We actually were so much in love and committed to each other that we didn’t care who else was there besides us.

   Nineteen short years later, I watched her take her last breath. Cancer had taken its toll. I didn’t know a human could hurt so much. Within days I became aware of this hole in my soul that seemed permanent.

   Friends that would cry in my presence helped more than they knew. I was still struggling a bit about embracing the grieving process, thinking it a weakness. People who cried with me gave me freedom to mourn. Positive comments about Ruth’s life were also encouraging.

   Most people simply said, “I am so sorry.” That did help.

   I remember a few of the feeble comments different folks shared with me. The ones I remember most were the simple, honest statements about my present pain or loss. “I really miss her, too,” one friend expressed. That empathy hugged my soul. Another had three Bible verses and a mini-sermon on God’s will for me. I cringed during their comments. Being sensitive to the current need of the grieving takes care and discernment. Often their need revolves simply around their human pain at the moment. Simply stating or allowing them to state the obvious can release some of that pain.

   A comment that was particularly disconcerting to me was from a well-meaning friend who told me that, “If you had had more faith, Ruth would not have had to die.” Others were nearly as hurtful — the ones who AVOIDED me. I felt rejected by them. It would have been better to send a card or simply say, “I am sorry for your loss,” than to say nothing and stay away.

   Understanding a few of the basics about the grieving process (i.e. a broken heart) can go a long way in aiding us in knowing what to say to those who are encountering losses life throws at them. The list of losses that merit being classified as “grievable” is much larger than many would admit. The following compilation is far from complete, but it should broaden the scope of our understanding:

  • Death of a spouse
  • Death of a relative or friend
  • Death or lost custody of a child
  • Death of an cherished pet
  • Marriage or Divorce
  • Loss of a friendship
  • Moving to a new community
  • Stages of the “empty nest”
  • Retirement
  • Loss of a job or position
  • Loss of health
  • Major financial changes
  • Addictions
  • Legal problems
  • Starting or finishing school

   Some would look at my partial list and respond, “Well, isn’t that all just a part of life?” Yes, it is. That’s the point exactly. We all have and do experience loss as a part of everyday life. However, we don’t always deal with the grieving process well. The negative effects of undealt with grief can be a hindrance to our emotions and spirit.

   Realizing that grieving is a normal and healthy response to loss set me free to embrace the process and accept the characteristics of mourning as okay and right. I am thankful for a couple of mentors who came along-side me after Ruth’s death. They showed me the value of leaning into the process instead of resisting it. First I realized that grief is simply an emotional acknowledgement of loss. It is mostly a heart problem and not a mind challenge. I also learned that while the mourning process is emotional, I could not ignore that it is a physical condition as well.

   Cliché comments like, “You have to be strong” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can bear” often feed the misconception that grieving is negative and wrong. Instead of implying folks struggle against their hurts, you can be more understanding with comments like, “I’m sorry this has happened to you” or “You must hurt (or miss them) very much right now.”

   A year after Ruth died, a widow lady came to the school where I taught who absolutely swept me off my feet. I mean, I don’t know what I thought about “love at first sight” before that, but the fact that it happened to me was for sure. I thought all those feelings had died. What a beautiful lady!

   The next year Judith and I found ourselves in a large church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, with six sons on one side and two daughters and Judith’s sister on the other. Again, the room echoed our vows, “Till death do us part.”

   These words had much deeper meaning to both of us. We had both experienced this hard reality of that truth to the fullest. However, even with that, we viewed the actuality of it happening again as being a life-time away.

   Falling in love again was fun. There, I said it. A lot of the unknowns about life and love had been answered for both of us. All we needed to do was plug each other into the equation. Of course, we had to establish a new identity between us. Our new identity was a new “US.” It was not like our parents’ relationship. It was not like our previous marriage relationships. It was a unique, new relationship that required learning and growing together. So, we did that.

   Twenty years later cancer struck again. If you are married, death WILL happen to one of you, eventually. My case is unusual only because it happened during younger years and my middle-aged years.

   A full-body scan exposed cancerous spots on Judith’s lungs and a large, stage four tumor on her pancreas. With that news Judith asked, “Does that mean I am going to die?” I teared up and nodded, “Yes” as I leaned over for a long, sobbing embrace. I had never heard Judith cry like that before.

   Just as Judith and I talked about everything, this would be no different. The next four days in the hospital afforded us time to mourn her impending death together. Few visitors were allowed in. It was our time to fully say goodbye and discuss the possible events of the coming months. As usual, we tackled even the hard questions. Through our tears we discussed issues like helping the kids and grandkids through the mourning process, what her memorial service would look like, would she want to die at home with hospice, and her even insisting that I, again, consider remarriage.

   The pain and release of talking about her death with Judith was a new experience for me. Ruth and I never did that. I guess it was because we were so young and clung to all hope for even a few more months together that we avoided actually looking at each other and admitting out loud that she was going to die now.

   Gradually we communicated with our eight children and their families that they needed to do whatever it took to come see Mom/Grandma soon before pain medication made it hard for her to be alert. Consequently, over the following six weeks, each of our kids, their spouses and the twenty-four grandkids came one family at a time. Each had one-to-one personal time with Judith saying goodbye and expressing abiding love that only she could give. It was the most heart-wrenching thing I have ever had to do for such a long time. I watched, monitored and participated in each one’s mourning. Some of the grandchildren wept the deepest in my arms.

   On an early Sunday morning late in October, Judith left this world. She was free from the pain. My mourning plunged to the deepest level I had ever experienced. I felt like I was a no-body with her gone.

   I was alone again. This time was different. The first time I had an empty bed but a house full of kids to keep caring for. This time, I came home to an empty bed and an empty house. The loneliness was deafening.

   A few friends offered in passing, “Dave, if you ever want to talk, call me anytime. I mean it, anytime.” Well guess what? It didn’t happen. I knew they had lives and families. I probably could have called. I probably should have called. But it would have been more helpful if they had said, “So, Dave, would it be better if I came by Saturday at 7 p.m. or Sunday?”

   Sometimes circumstances and dominant personalities hinder some people from grieving freely. In many of these cases, having a friend or close relative who gives them “permission” to grieve can be a key to their victory. Instead of pointing out their strength or toughness, an honest statement about their loss and pain would be more beneficial to their long-term healing. A straightforward question such as, “Are you giving yourself time or permission to cry sometimes?” could be just the thing that helps.

     Roz called me from Florida the other day. She was hesitant but asked, “Can I ask you a question about how to help a new friend of mine?” She explained that a new lady had just started coming to her Bible study who had recently lost her husband. Roz said she wanted to help her and not be a hindrance to her. Neither of us had a long time to talk so Roz asked me for a “really concise version” of what she needed to say or not say. I replied, “The general rule is: The more recent the loss, the less you should say.”

   What that means is that the closer it is time-wise that the loss actually took place, the less you should say. If they lost their loved one that day, you say very little. Maybe one sentence like, “It must really hurt.” Do not try to solve their mourning issue with a long logic statement on how to look ahead, etc. However, if you are talking to them three months later, you might find they want to rehearse how their loved one died in vivid detail.

   Knowing what to say, or not say, often comes through a better understanding of the grieving process. Such understanding does not always have to be obtained through personal experience. We can benefit from that of others willing to be honest about their feelings and journey following a loss. Don’t be afraid to educate yourself about the grieving process.

   Grief is indeed a difficult subject to face. For most of us it does not attract our attention as a topic that we naturally wish to be an expert on. Yet, coping with loss qualifies as a natural part of life. Statistically – at least one of your friends or colleagues within the next year will go through loss in one way or another.

   So I urge you to work towards being the kind of friend that … you will need someday. It isn’t that hard and it will make a difference to them.

            One last thing. Because I received so many questions after my second wife died, I felt compelled not to hoard my lessons. My book, I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY:  Being a Better Friend To Those Who Experience Loss, is a handbook with helpful tips and stand-alone chapters. It may be just what you need as you become a better friend.

 (Dr. David Knapp is the founder of Grief Relief Ministries and is a national conference and seminar speaker. He has served as a college professor and president, and has been a personal counselor. Dr. Knapp and his wife, Crystal live in Mesa, AZ.  He can be reached for a booking at 866-596-0470 or through his web page. His book can also be ordered online. www.griefreliefministries.com/book

Want to learn how to be a better friend to someone experiencing loss?

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