Saturday, February 16, 2013

Grief etiquette

A diversion from the usual collection of party photos. They will return shortly, promise. 
My articles are often commissioned to me, but this one - in today's Sunday Life magazine (The Age newspaper) was my idea: what to say to someone who's in a traumatic situation. I interviewed a breast cancer survivor, a mother whose son suicided and a woman who battled infertility for years (before giving birth to her son), and the article is simply what they had to say: the words that helped them, and the words that didn't. 

Years ago, a friend of mine was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Visiting him in palliative care, I was struck by the different things people said to him. Some visitors came in and - I'm thinking they wanted to fill that awkward silence - spoke about their holidays booked, upcoming parties, activities they were planning. These were all the things he'd never get to do, obviously, and I don't think they realised how hard it was for him to hear about future plans. On the other hand, others came and spoke to him about his illness, or cracked jokes about his dire situation - in his case (and I'm not suggesting this would work for everyone), he really welcomed the opportunity to address the elephant in the room, and to laugh when there were so few laughs in his day. 

Of course, one thing is never going to work with everyone. If someone dies in an untimely fashion, it's usually awful to hear words like, "They're in a better place now," because it doesn't feel like that for the survivor. On the other hand, if you're very religious, perhaps that is a comforting sentiment for some. 

Neradine, the breast cancer survivor in my article, had people tell her stories of others who'd battled breast cancer - and died. As she told me with a sly smile, "That's just not helpful!" Another person avoided her entirely once she was diagnosed - only to speak to her again when she was in the clear. One of the best responses she got? A friend sent her a boxed DVD set to while away the long hospital hours. 

Here's the best I can offer, even though I don't claim to be an expert; I've put my foot in it before, too. If you don't know what to say, simply say this: "I can't imagine what you're going through. I can't imagine how difficult it is for you. But please know that I am here for you, and please tell me how I can help you." Offer to help, in practical ways. Be there to listen. It's not foolproof, but it's a start. 

For the actual article, read it here.

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