On Consolation

February 25, 2016


I used to think that word was nonsense. Hyperbole. Sloppy overstatement. I mean, really, is there someone out there who would experience something that at some point they would never get over, that they would literally never find consolation from? Really??

Of course, since Simon’s death two years ago, my perspective on this–as on so many other things–has changed.

In particular, my thoughts on what it means to help someone who is grieving–someone who needs to be consoled–have changed considerably. For most of us, the natural urges we have just aren’t that helpful, unfortunately. Thinking back to how I treated others who were grieving, I shake my head in wonderment at how inconsiderate I was.

My friend whose mother died? I think I signed my name on a card with no additional note. My buddy who had brain cancer? A saccharine, overly positive, irrationally optimistic text message I sent with no follow up.

I remember interviewing a man for a job. I asked, “What’s one of the hardest things you’ve worked through, and how did you handle it?” He looked down at his hands and said, “Well, actually, earlier this year my wife and I were expecting a little girl. We lost her toward the end. It’s been very hard for us since….” Before he could go on, I jumped in–I told myself–to save him from this faux paus. I about fell out of my chair from the shock of it, and fumbled through an awkward half-apology-half-redirect to help him avoid having to talk about this terrible tragedy (or…was it me saving myself from my terrible fear of addressing someone else’s pain?).

We ended up hiring him and, years later, he was one of the first people I called after my son was stillborn. He was one of the people who showed me what it meant to be truly helpful. He let me talke; he asked questions; he didn’t try to fix me and didn’t offer excuses or impossible promises about the future.

CardsAfter Simon died, we became something of detached anthropologists, reflecting on the behaviors of others who attempted to comfort us. Some people were just intuitively good at helping those who feel bad. They knew when to make a decision and butt in, and knew when to leave you alone; they knew what to say or ask, and when to shut up (mostly the latter); they were considerately inquisitive and fundamentally focused on us.

Others tried, and…well…. They tried. And I have a soft spot in my heart for all of those who did anything to help us.

They tried to comfort us with words of hope and faith, but in so doing merely highlighted our despair and the injustice of the universe.

Of course, when it comes down to it, no words, no actions will fix us. As Tony Woodlief writes over at Sand in the Gears, “Your words will change nothing, even with the best intentions, because they cannot descend into the grave, cannot breathe life into death.”

And I think that’s a key insight, both for they who would wish to comfort those touched by grief, and those grieved who are upset by the inadequacy of others’ attempts to make us feel better. We should each recognize those limitations.

Tony goes on:

Yes, but what if [doing the most helpful thing of simply saying I am sorry. I am so very sorry.] isn’t enough? It isn’t. But if they want to hear more, they will tell you. They control so little else right now, for God’s sake, let them control that. Because chances are they’d rather you listen than speak, for what collects in them is a poison, and somehow it must come out. The grieving, you see, need your ears more than your tongue.


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