The Cardinal Sin Of Comforting The Grieving

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

The one thing you must remember when comforting the grieving is this:
Tailor your message.
There’s not much you can say at this point that hasn’t already been said, and even if you did say something new it’s not going to help overmuch.   But there are things you can say that can highlight how unfair this all is, rub salt in fresh wounds by reminding them how people don’t get their pain.  So step carefully.
And when I say “step carefully,” that includes social media.  Remember, Facebook and Twitter are basically huge rooms that you’re shouting into where anyone can overhear you.  If you’ve friended a grieving person on Facebook, that means any post you make can be something you said, effectively, straight to their faces.  So yes, for a time, you must treat your Facebook as carefully as anything you’d say at the funeral home.
So don’t post things “at least he’s in Heaven now” when a grieving atheist is on your friends’ list.  That’s the opposite of comfort.
But also don’t be stupid and assume, “Well, one person doesn’t like religion, so all religious expressions must be bad!”  There are people to whom “At least he’s in Heaven now” would be a good thing to say.
The reason I bring this up is that a friend of mine went off on a vitriolic rant about how stupid it was to say “I’ve said a prayer for her” and went off on a huge rant about how what kind of fucked-up God would do this, and how could people be so insensitive to think that stupid prayers would be helpful, and even tagged me in the post so I’d see exactly what kind of morons would spew this crap.
But I am a Christian.  I do believe in God.  I don’t discuss my faith a whole lot, because I think at this point most sane adults have enough evidence to either believe in God or they don’t.  But my faith has really gotten me through this horrible time with a serenity I don’t think I could have had without it, and I’ve spent many hours in prayer at this point, talking with the Big Kahuna.
As such, it was really hurtful for me to see someone denigrating my faith in the middle of a time when I was deep in grief.
I’m sure she meant well.  But she committed the cardinal sin of comforting the grieving: she did not tailor the message.  She did the same asshole thing that religious nuts do in going, “Hey, I think this way, so I’m positive you think this way” and attempted to comfort me according to her script, not mine.
That didn’t help.
Yet while my belief is a balm to me, I make a point not to bring up God to anyone grieving unless I specifically know they do believe – and even then, I do so carefully.  Because even if someone actually believes the dead are in Heaven’s glory forevermore, that may not be particularly comforting to someone who is not in Heaven, and is very far from fucking Heaven, and in fact misses their loved one so much right now.  Heaven, if it exists, is very far away, and what they may need is a hug right now from someone who’s no longer there.
So until you know what a grieving person wants to hear, you should restrict your discussions to generics like “I’m sorry he’s gone” and “I’m sorry for your loss.”  It sounds trite to say this.  It is trite to say this.  But it is a true sentiment, and it’s not like there’s a sentence you can speak at this point that can magically erase someone’s grief over a death.  There may be specific conversations you have later about the loss and how it works, complex discussions organically molded to fit the shape of their pain… but that’s not going to happen in the first aftershock of death, and that’s when you’re likely to do the most damage.
Tailor the message.  Be careful on social media.  And be very specifically kind.
That’s about it.

3 Comments

  1. Becki
    Jun 10, 2014

    Very eloquently put. I know sometimes at a time of loss, my own emotions take over, and I try to find the right way to express my condolences without negating the feelings or beliefs of the person I am trying to console. A lot of the time, I lean towards the trite, for fear I would fail otherwise, and sometimes I have failed. Thank you for stating this and reminding me to be cautious.

  2. Megan
    Jun 10, 2014

    Thank you for posting this. I never know what to say when one of my friends is grieving. I am always afraid that I’ll say the wrong thing, or sound stupid, or make things awful.
    That being said, if you’ll permit me, I’ll try. Up until now, I haven’t had the courage to extend my condolences to you because I didn’t have the words – and I’m not sure they are the right words now, but please know that I am trying.
    I hope that her memories, in time, help heal some of the pain of her leaving this Earth so soon. Her beauty and purity of spirit shone through her smiles in the pictures you posted, and in her short life, she touched the hearts of so many people, many she didn’t even know. Because of her brief time here, the world was, and will continue to be, a better place. I am so deeply sorry that you and the other members of her family must suffer this great loss, and if there is anything I can do, anything at all, please let me know.

  3. Christie
    Jun 11, 2014

    *Many* of my friends in SFF are Christian. More than are willing to admit it, because SFF is a hostile place for people of faith.
    I am not Christian. So the fuck what. At a time like this, my beliefs don’t mean shit.
    All I want is for you and your extended family to find comfort and relief. How that happens is of absolutely no consequence to me.
    I just want to hug you all and hope it helps. And I don’t understand anyone who wants anything else.

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