Turning Grief into Gratitude
By Reuven P. Bulka
Excerpts from Chapter Five
In the mourning visit, the most frequent parting comment is, “If you ever need anything, do not hesitate to call.” My best advice after years of dealing with people in mourning is simply: do not use this phrase. It means nothing and it is unfair.
What it does is put the mourner in the position of having to ask. That is not a nice thing to do. No one really likes having to ask for anything, especially since one is not sure that the request will be fulfilled. One will then feel doubly upset at having been turned down and having made someone else feel uncomfortable. Added to this is the feeling of being shattered that a person you thought really cared really does not.
A person who really cares will not dump the obligation of reconnecting into the lap of anyone, least of all a mourner. The truly caring person will once again take the initiative after the visit and have a thought-out agenda of helping.
From an unscientific survey of people who have shared their thoughts with me, I can tell you that the “extra mile” gesture is appreciated beyond words. It shows, without saying anything, that the person going the extra mile is a concerned soul who is not locked into a formula for what has to be done to discharge one’s social obligations; i.e., making a token call or visit. As much as the pro forma “How are you doing?” question is fraught with complications, a call following the official mourning, to a mourner who has completed the shiv’ah period, opening with “I called just to check on how you are doing,” is most welcome.
First, the wording of the call avoids the need for a direct answer. Second, and most important, the call comes when the mourner, who had heretofore been (usually) surrounded by a host of people, is now much more alone and sometimes feels almost forgotten.
The attitude of many may be, “well, the mourning is over, so it is back to business as usual,” which for too many means caring little about others.
An out-of-the-way gesture goes a long way toward the healing that needs to follow the intense period of grieving. It tells the lonely mourner that he or she is not alone.
Silence as an Approach
Often, when I share with an audience the complications posed by many of the mantra-like thoughtless phrases that are thrown at mourners, I am asked a most legitimate question.
I introduce my observation by presenting to them two comments shared with me by people who had just concluded their shiv’ah.
On one occasion, a person complained to me that someone who had come to visit had the nerve to talk about the weather. “How dare they talk about the weather when I am grieving for the loss of my mother?” I understood the comment and dutifully put it into my mental file.
A few weeks later, and with the comment still fresh in my memory bank, another person approached me. “What right did that person have to talk about my father and thereby pour salt over my still raw wounds?” His complaint was just the opposite—a visitor had the audacity to talk about the deceased.
This brings into sharp focus the daunting task of finding the right words for comforting mourners. It invariably leads to the aforementioned legitimate question: if everything I say is potentially no good, what should I say?
Great question. And the answer is: say nothing! Say nothing? Is it not the obligation of the comforter to offer words of comfort? The answer, surprising as it may sound, is no. It is not the obligation of the visitor to offer words of comfort. The visitor’s obligation is to comfort, plain and simple.
But how can one comfort without saying anything? Comfort is achieved simply by being there, with the mourner, even in silence.
Everyone would agree that coming and saying nothing is preferable to coming and saying something silly or unwelcome. Of course, the best result is attained by coming and sharing wise thoughts and reflections. But how can one know what is appropriate when every mourner thinks differently?
The answer: through silence, through coming with lips sealed and ears wide open. That is the Jewish protocol, an often-ignored protocol, for mourning visitation. Come there, sit, and listen. The mourner will start talking, and you will then know where the mourner is. You can then respond.
This is the safe, sensitive, and sensible way to be a comforter.
On The Fly
We are all busy. There are so many things we would like to do, but do not get around to doing. We know many people. So, it is difficult to go to every house of mourning to make condolence calls. We would like to, but things come up, the time that it takes to get there and back is simply not available, or, in the pressure of time, we simply forget.
What happens is that we resort to what I call “condolence on the fly.” We chance upon the mourner at a gathering and rush over to offer a delayed condolence. Never mind that you may be doing a disservice to the mourner by dumping your words when the mourner may be in a different mind space.
Many a mourner has expressed real hurt at being pounced on in awkward places, such as the grocery store when in the midst of shopping, by a well-meaning but not necessarily well-thinking person.
That person should have called, did not call, and now, seeing a convenient opportunity, blurts out a condolence formula to someone who was trying to shop, and instead is brought sharply back to the world of melancholy.
If you are serious about comforting, go out of your way a little, either by a visit, or a phone call, or a card, or an e-mail, to show some initiative.
A by-the-way, or on-the-fly gesture, rings hollow and often evokes angry feelings inside the mourner, feelings that most often go unexpressed.
It is not fair to the mourner and not fair to whatever relationship you want to maintain with the mourner, hopefully a good one.
Excerpts from Chapter Five of the book, Turning Grief into Gratitude
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© 2005 Reuven P. Bulka
Reuven P. Bulka, a rabbi and psychologist for over 35 years, has personally lost a son and a wife, and his parents died less than a year ago. His frequent encounters with well-meaning but unthinking well-wishers led him to dedicate a significant portion of his newest book, to sharing the DO’s and DON’Ts of consoling mourners.
from the May 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine