Dealing with Denial - Part 2 - How to Respond

To continue last week’s discussion, let’s explore some ways that you can initially respond to a death, practical ways to respond, how to respond without using clichés, and how to respond after a funeral.

How to Respond Initially

For the purposes of this blog we will focus on the initial contact which includes responding to the news, offering condolences, assistance in practical matters, the shock factor, the forgotten griever and finally unconditional support. What is most important to understand is that is it of utmost importance to make contact as soon as possible. It is not always practical to physically go to the grieving person so a telephone call or a letter should be sent as soon as possible. I have heard it argued that sending an email condolence is tacky; however, it is an accepted means of communication in today’s society, so you need to make the call on that one based upon the circumstances. Offering condolences seems to be the hardest for people. There are no prescribed set of words to be said to comfort the bereaved. Simply say what is in your heart, and remember sometimes a hug or just being with the person gives the most condolence.

Responding in Practical Ways

After a death the most important thing is to make a choice about how to react: sending flowers, mailing cards, attending the funeral and then to follow through. One practical way may include providing transportation for out-of-town family members needing to be picked up from the airport. Taking extra umbrellas to the graveside service is another way to show you care. The cemetery usually has a small tent with five or so chairs for the family’s protection and comfort but on a rainy day this is hardly adequate, especially if it is anticipate that many people will be in attendance. Staying at the house during the funeral, changing the sheets on the bed, or laundering clothes that need to be taken to the funeral home are more practical ways to show you care. When taking food items, try not to take casseroles or food that is high in fat and empty calories. Grieving people don’t often eat much, so when they do it’s important that the food is high quality and won’t leave him/her feeling worse than before they ate. Always remember to mark any containers that need to be returned or if possible include the container as part of the gift. Most people think of taking food to a house of mourning, but not drinks. Take an ice filled cooler full of bottled water, soda, and other cold beverages. Although this next suggestion is only practical if the financial means are available, it is a profound act of responding. The family may need help deferring costs for airfare, or need hotel rooms for out of town guests. Some may even need financial help with the funeral arrangements. An additional ways to help include making phone calls for the family from your phone, not theirs, so their line stays open for incoming calls.

Perhaps the most practical way to respond is by attending the funeral or memorial service that the family has arranged. At the funeral there is usually a register for people attending the service to sign their names. When attending a service it is important to sign the book as this will be a reference for the family at a later date if you are unable to speak with them at the service. In the days and weeks following the service, the survivors often refer to the register book to see who attended the service. Reading the names listed in the book can bring more comfort than imagined.

How to Respond Without the Use of Clichés

Most people have played the dual role of being comforted, while being the comforter for others. Both roles can be overwhelmingly difficult, especially when at a loss for words.

Many people use clichés with the intention of helping, but more often than not, they end up hurting. I Know Just How You Feel... Avoiding the Clichés of Grief is an attempt to bridge the gap between those hurting and those comforting.

The author, Erin Linn, lost her son six year old son in 1974 when he was hit by a car and killed instantly. Before the loss of her son, Linn used to speak with clichés such as "That's too bad," or "Time will heal." Now she is convinced that there must be other ways to express ourselves without the use of clichés.

Many clichés of grief fit into specific categories. For example, "Big boys don't cry," would fit into the 'Be Strong' clichés. Instead, the statement "Don't be embarrassed to cry," or "Go ahead and cry," could be used. The alternative statement lets the person know you are comfortable with letting them show their feelings as well as encouraging them to do so.

"Time will heal", would fit into the 'Hurry Up' clichés. By saying, "You must feel as if this pain will never end," you are showing that you understand how they are feeling right now.

"Only the good die young," would fit into the 'Guilt' clichés. If you want to say, "She was such a good person," or "He was such a good child," then you are praising the one who died without casting a negative light on those who are still living.

"It was God's will", would fit into the 'God' clichés. We misuse this cliché often because we want to try explaining why God did something. For example, if a woman has had a miscarriage we may use the cliché incorrectly because the miscarriage may have happened because the woman fell down the stairs, and obviously God did not push her because it was His will. It would be more comforting to say, "This is a terrible tragedy for you to have to go through," or "Some things that happen are tragic and make no sense."

Finally "I know just how you feel", would fit into the 'Discount' clichés. A more honest statement would be, "I cannot begin to know how you feel because I have never had this happen to me." It should also be noted that if you have experienced a similar loss this would not be the time for you to share your tragic story as the other person is just beginning their grief process and does not need another loss to mourn.

Next week, in Part 3, we’ll look at some of the ways one can respond after a funeral.

Dealing with Denial - Part 1 - One of the Greatest Gifts

Denial is a word that we hear often in the context of death. We’re a death denying society. Have you heard that not wanting to view the body at the mortuary is denial? Did you know that avoiding people who have had a loss is denial? Denial, denial, denial.

I happen to think that denial is one of the greatest gifts we have been given.

Denial protects our brains when we can’t process what is happening to us in present circumstances. Denial allows us to take in information slowly and process it as our brains and emotions allow.

I prefer to say that someone is still processing information in relation to the loss as compared to that they are in denial of the loss. At this point society is told so often that they are in denial that I think we’ve lost sight of what people are trying to adapt to, which is life without their loved one. We see death everywhere around us; we hear about murder, soldiers killed in war, our WWII generation is dying at an alarming rate, floods and other natural disasters around the world, and discussions of euthanasia abound. Are we really death denying, or do we just not know how to process our grief?

I tend to deny things that I know about but don’t want to deal with at the moment. I’m in denial right now that my car has a small oil leak, but I know that I need to get my car in shop soon, and I reluctantly will. But denial in death implies that we have a problem, know what the solution is, and we’re ignoring it. I don’t think our society is in denial over death, we truly don’t know how to process it. We’ve never been taught before.

Think back to your first experience with loss. Perhaps you moved from one house to another, your goldfish died, your parents got divorced, or your grandparent died. Who helped you deal with that loss? And how did they help you deal with it? Chances are that your folks were so busy packing that they didn’t think about the fact that this was the house you came home from the hospital in, the only home you had ever know. Chances are that when your goldfish died you were told, “It’s just a fish, and we’ll get another one on Saturday.” Chances are when your parents got divorced they were consumed with who got to see you on the holidays, and who got to take your bedroom set to the next house, and who had to buy another one. Chances are when your grandparent died, your Mom or Dad thought they were protecting you by not taking you to the funeral home to look at the body. After all, you would see a lot of sad people, and who would want to expose you to that?

What they didn’t know is that you loved that house; that goldfish might as well as have been real gold since it was the only pet you had so far in your life; you didn’t care who you were going to be with on holidays, you wanted both of your parents at the same time; and you really did want to say goodbye to your Grandpa.

So why do we do handle loss so poorly?

I propose it’s because we don’t know what to do with it, not because we’re in denial of it. When was the last time someone told you that a death had occurred? A friend called to say that her mother had died, or a coworker’s teenaged son died of a drug overdose over the weekend? What did you say to that person? In all my years of dealing with subject I still struggle with what to say when someone I know has experienced the death of a loved one. When working at the funeral home I would say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” That’s appropriate for a stranger maybe, but not for people we know. I spoke with a funeral director friend the other day whose mother had recently died, and I hadn’t heard the news yet. After he told me he said, “Please don’t say you’re sorry, and please don’t send me a sympathy card. It’s not your fault, and all the cards look the same to me now.”

I just quietly said, “O.K.”, and let him talk and tell me what he wanted to share with me. Then we said goodbye, and hung up. It was a little awkward, but I respected that he didn’t want to listen to me. After all, the conversation was about his mother’s death, not about me or him. Thankfully the art of condolence isn’t practiced often enough to really become good at, but we really do need some better condolence skills. Again, are we in denial when we avoid the person whose loved one died? Are we in denial over that death? I say no, we just don’t know what to say, so we say nothing.

So take the discomfort that comes from trying to figure out what to say, do, give to a person who has experienced a loss, and put yourself on the receiving end. Now everyone is telling you, “I’m sorry.” “Let me know if I can do anything for you.” “I’ll be praying for you.” Really? You’ll be praying for me? Who believes that? Everything becomes so cliché that you can’t bring yourself to believe that they really mean they really mean what they are saying. So they can’t express what they want to you, you can’t accept it, and the cycle goes on and one because no one knows any different. Thus fewer people choose to respond because of their fear of doing or saying the “wrong” thing. Are we in denial? No, we simply don’t know what to do.

So why do so many experts think we are a death denying society?

First, we use euphemisms. Examples of euphemisms are: bit the dust, kicked the bucket, bought the farm, passed away. Euphemisms are harmful because without using words such as dying, dead, and death we may not be facing the reality of death.

Second, we do not like to talk about death. I would elaborate but, we don’t like to talk about death, so I won’t.

Third, cryonics (body freezing) suggests a denial of death. Cryonics is based on the idea that someday a cure with found for all diseases and the deceased can be brought back to life.

Fourth, in America we do not die, we take a long nap. Caskets have built-in-mattresses, the head of the deceased rests on a pillow and the room where the body is laid out is referred by some as the "slumber room."

Fifth, societies such as the United States of America call in a professional when someone dies. The funeral director takes the body away and one has the option of viewing again or simply choosing a direct cremation or a direct burial.

Sixth, the casket is not lowered into the ground until the family has left the cemetery. This is part of the funeral director’s way of "protecting" the family from the finality of death.

I don’t deny that some in society do not know how to deal with death, nor do they want to be educated on how to react to death. However, by being on this website, you are in fact reaching out, and hopefully getting the answers that you are looking for as you become educated on end of life issues.

Next week, we’ll explore some ways that you can respond initially to a death, practical ways to respond, how to respond without using clichés, and how to respond after a funeral.