One of the worst things anyone said to me after my husband died was: “No one loved him more than I did.” Why was this not a helpful thing to hear? Should it not have consoled me to hear that he was so loved? I think the reason this landed badly with me was because the person was appropriating my own grief. He was usurping my role and burdening me with his reaction, just as I was casting about in bewilderment as to how to carry my own burden.
The Fabric of the Universe Changed
Being in contact with a grieving person can be akin to walking into a nuclear reactor after meltdown. This may sound like an overly dramatic way of putting it, but for those close to the death, the fabric of the known universe has been damaged. Someone has disappeared. He has been swallowed into a black hole from which there is no retreat. Even where there is religious faith, those closest to the deceased are coping with forces completely beyond their control.
At the beginning of the raw adjustment of early mourning (which does not pass in a matter of weeks, or even months), I found I couldn’t even take other people relating their “happy memories” of my husband. Which was interesting, given that “My favorite memory of your loved one is…” ranks in the list of things that are supposed to be helpful.
His loss was so shocking and so keen in me, that for a while I lost the very ability to remember the happy things we had experienced together. The final illness (which was pretty traumatic for both of us) completely eclipsed everything. So when those who had not undergone that experience touted their little gems, I felt at best that they were being sentimental; at worst — well, let’s just say that it prolonged the “anger” stage.
Not every bereavement is as traumatic as mine was. But we need to bear in mind that we simply don’t know what a bereaved person has been through. Hence the need for caution: not for the sake of “getting it right,” but out of deep humility in a situation we cannot encompass with our minds, and do not have any expertise in.
We Cannot Imagine
The irreplaceable prelude to “I am here for you if you need me” has to be those unassuming words: “I cannot imagine what you are going through.” Because, trust me, the person going through it is suffering from a failure of imagination too. It’s all just too much to take in.
After the initial bewilderment and anger and depression had made their predictable assaults, I found that those I reached out to were those I could be certain would not take advantage of my immense vulnerability. It turned out there were less of these than I might have hoped. And that is a pity.
But Christianity being the art of drawing good out of evil, it has made me all the more determined to be sensitive to others now going through the same thing. Charity may not be a hazmat suit: but ought to be an antidote to making things worse for the walking wounded.