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what to say to a suffering person

Grief is unavoidable given that suffering is part of the human condition, and yet so often we stress over the “right” thing to say to a grieving person. I’ve always been curious about why that might be. How does cultivating comfort amidst grief elude us after millennia of standing upon the shoulders of suffering giants? What can or should we say to a person deep in their grief?



My hunch? Nothing, probably. Say nothing, but be present. More and more, I am convinced that presence is the balm many of us seek. Relative to the timeline of humanity, the phenomenon of disconnection and distraction from one another is novel. Though many might identify with how futile it can feel to search for the perfect words to express support to someone experiencing loss, I wonder how often words would have been necessary to our ancestors in seasons of grief and suffering. I’m sure that for most of human history, presence and community took up the space where words didn’t need to.


I’m reminded of the scene from Lars and the Real Girl when Ryan Gosling’s character decides to give up the delusion of his blow-up doll girlfriend, and she becomes sick and eventually dies. The whole town grieves by his side because they knew how much she meant to him, even if only symbolically (I might argue especially because it was symbolic). They came to his home to sit in the living room and knit. It wasn’t what they said, it was what they did. Their very behavior became an act of love so profound that it transcended words. They were simply present, and that made all the difference.


Of course, words are necessary sometimes! I live far away from many of my friends, and there are ways that I can’t be physically present for them how I wish. In those moments, a phone call is ideal—but we all know how tough it is sometimes to even carve out time for a solid, intentional phone call. So then what should our words be? I would argue that they should describe exactly what I wish I could do if I lived a stone’s throw away.


How I wish I could bring us cups of coffee to enjoy while chatting together.

I can’t bring over a casserole, so is there a meal I can have delivered to you from a local spot?

If we were in the same room, I’d give you a big hug.

While there’s nothing wrong with “sorry for your loss” or “everything happens for a reason,” I believe there’s a way to take those sentiments a step further that feels a bit more relational and resonant. I hope I can always affirm that people understand their needs better than I might project, so how do I instead make myself available to help someone express their grief in the way that suits them uniquely?

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When I was in college, I was required to take a fairly intense career aptitude test as a freshman. We were told to take the results seriously because it was designed to be hyper-accurate, so much that the test took hours to complete over multiple days. My top three career projections were as follows: dance instructor (lol), teacher (a career I ended up having for years), and funeral director. I always tell this as an amusing anecdote to friends and family because, you know, what a trifecta! The truth is that the idea of being involved with funerals has haunted me ever since (ba-dum-chh!).


It just so happens that in my dad’s retirement from almost 40 years at UPS, he’s been working at the local funeral homes part-time. It started out as someone saying, “Hey, Chip! If you want to keep busy in your retirement, we’d love to have you be a greeter at funerals to help us out.” Now it’s evolved to my dad leaving in the wee small hours of the morning to help remove a body from someone’s home. I’ve been fascinated to hear about his experiences over the last handful of years, and fate would have it that there’s been a need for an extra set of hands at the funeral homes nearby. So I’ve been shadowing a bit to discern if I can see myself approaching it more long-term (don't worry, I'd still make candles). Here’s what I’ve discovered:


I have no qualms about being close to bodies that have breathed their last and have since been embalmed and dressed for viewing. What makes me have to summon an extra oomph of strength is when it’s time for the funeral and loved ones arrive.


With each person, there’s a unique set of stories in relation to the dearly departed—and those stories as a collective have their own web of dynamics. To see a grown daughter crying over the casket of her mother and knowing all that she might be wishing is grueling. She might wish that there was more time to say goodbye. Or more time to iron out past regrets. Or time to receive forgiveness. Or time to offer forgiveness. In any case, that moment standing over the casket with all of its emotional depth and nuance simply needs to be lived through. It’s certainly painful, but the real shame, in my humble opinion, is that our culture often shapes us to believe that pain doesn’t serve us. Grief and suffering are deeply transformative. If we didn’t have experiences where we have to confront an utter lack of control in the face of the unknown, then what reason would there be to face life with both courage and vulnerability? Every religion and age-old myth teaches us that life is suffering. How do we help others suffer well?


I often think of it like childbirth (so much that many of you have probably heard me invoke the metaphor before, but I can't help myself). Suffering is just as painful as it is life-giving, and ideally you push through it with a sense of meaning and purpose. You glean from it as much as you can so you can be as prepared for life as possible. The more you remember to breathe through pain, the more it becomes muscle memory, and before you know it—pain almost seems like a strange gift because you can trust that wisdom and ease await on the other side of it.


The power of saying nothing to a grieving person and simply choosing to be a body in the room for them is that it indicates that you trust their ability to get through it. That trust dignifies them. When we don’t rush to solve suffering, we leave room for the possibility that it might not be only a pitiful situation and that there could even be something to gain (without minimizing the very real pain of it all). The reality is that suffering tends to make us exactly who we are depending on how we deal with it, and so much of how we deal with it depends on how others show up for us.

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When I came home after shadowing the first funeral, I talked to my parents about how awkward I felt to simply stand in the lobby while watching people in the depths of their sadness. It was humbling. What could I possibly offer these strangers? My parents and the funeral directors reminded me that taking care of logistics and being a steady presence is an act of service in itself. Saint André Bessett embodied this truth so well. He essentially became a saint for how well he held doors open for others. He greeted people at the door of Saint Joseph’s Oratory, and he did so with prayerful warmth—so much that people felt he had a healing presence, so they flocked to him. He was taken aback by this because he was quite unimpressed with himself. When he died, an estimated 1 million people came to his funeral.


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The idea of saying nothing and simply being present was hardest for me in my most recent serious relationship. The person I was with was admittedly not very open with his emotions or personal story. Because I loved him, I was eager to get to know the details of his life. I wanted to know his experiences because it would help me better understand and relate to him, but he often found it exhausting. The more I asked questions and pressed for answers, the less success I had. He’d lament, “Why all these long talks? I’m knackered!” He was also going through a tough life season, so his tendency to be a closed book made it all the more difficult to tend to his suffering that I knew was going on behind closed doors.


I remember one day I had poked my head into his office and asked something to the effect of how he was doing or if he needed anything, and he said no. This was during a period of time when he was particularly stressed and, therefore, particularly dismissive. But I stood in the door frame for an extra beat. In other words, I remained present and said nothing. Meanwhile, he had turned his focus back to his computer. Then just as I thought I had given enough pause and was ready to walk away, he looked over his shoulder slightly and started talking about what was on his mind. I was blown away. This was truly one of the first moments that he chose to openly share about what was bothering him, and lo and behold—it wasn’t prompted by one of my many diatribes encouraging him to do so (which was also humbling…go figure that his needs weren’t exactly the same as mine—ha!). I’d like to think that the beat of silent presence signaled my availability while also honoring his autonomy. Even though we ultimately didn’t make it as a couple, my relationship with him taught me a lot.


In the words of Alison Krauss (after Keith Whitley but I prefer the Kraus rendition), “You say it best when you say nothing at all.” If you find yourself tending to a suffering or grieving loved one, try being a listening ear only. I believe something miraculous happens when someone realizes they have the answers within themselves to make meaning of their own suffering and transform. And believe it or not, your presence is nonetheless necessary.


P.S.

Another striking observation from my time shadowing at the funeral homes: I wrongly assumed that a male-dominated funeral industry might mean that there’s a lack of tenderness. This has been far from my experience. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen anything more tender than a man pulling out a cosmetic bag to touch up the makeup of an 80 year-old woman right before her calling hours. Or gently lifting her head to smooth out the back of her hair so it’s laying nicely against the pillow. Or putting on her socks so they’re comfortable on her feet—something my dad talks about as his own way of dignifying the deceased. My dad has also talked about how this job has made him more philosophical than he’s ever been. I can see why.


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