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I Don't Know What to Say...

I Don't Know What to Say...

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A friend of mine just recently lost her child in a car accident. I have been thinking about her non stop but have yet to speak to my friend. It has already been a few weeks, and I haven’t called because I simply don’t know what to say. Yesterday I saw her in the grocery store and actually hid so that I wouldn’t have to face her. I am just worried about saying the wrong thing, and think that maybe it is just better not to say anything at all? Also, it is not like I am such a close friend of hers, she has a lot of friends, so I really don’t want to be a bother during this time. Please let me know what you suggest.

Debra

Dear Debra,

You raise an issue that almost everyone struggles with at some point in life. Death is natural. Death happens to all of us. Yet there are times when death seems appropriate, and times when it does not. As hard and difficult as the loss of a loved one is, we expect that we will first lose great grandparents, then grandparents, then parents, etc. Part of life is dealing with the reality that as we age, so do our loved ones, and that sooner or later we will have to face that loss.

When we avoid someone it is often because we are are so uncomfortable, not because we don't want to make the other uncomfortable

Yet then there are the situations that don’t fit into this plan, situations that we often do not know how to deal with. When a young father gets sick leaving behind a wife and small children, when a baby dies soon after birth, when a mother is killed in a car accident, when a toddler dies from a fall…yet these things do happen. We don’t understand or know why, but they do. And these are the situations that are the most unbearable for those who suffered the loss, and the most uncomfortable and overwhelming for those who witness this suffering, for we don’t even know what to say or do.

Jewish law is extensive in how it teaches us to deal with death, loss and mourning (See From Life to Life on this website for a comprehensive guide and further readings). And there are many lessons we can learn from this, not only in what to do, but why.

When someone suffers a loss, we have an obligation during their week of mourning, to visit and comfort the mourner. This teaches us that it is not up to us to decide if our presence is wanted because Torah is teaching us that our presence is needed.

Furthermore, when one goes to visit a mourner, the visitor is not supposed to speak until spoken to. Again, this shows us that sometimes it is better not to speak, especially if we are not sure what to say, but our mere presence is serving a purpose and showing us that we should and must acknowledge the loss and pay a visit to the mourner. And that visit alone is called a “comfort.” Now, once the mourner begins to speak, then we obviously speak in return. This shows us that we should allow the mourner to lead the way, to lead the conversation, to decide what it is that he or she is ready or willing to talk about.

Often it is easy to think that the mourner is better off if we do not visit, do not say anything, do not approach him or her. But it is not the case. When someone has suffered a tragic and unexpected loss, it is then, more than ever, that he or she needs the support, comfort, and involvement of other people. While I know this may be hard to hear, when we avoid someone it is often because we are so unmfortable, not because we don't want to make the other person uncomfortable. It is far better that we should make an attempt, reach out, offer some words of consolement or help and be turned away, than not do so at the expense of further hurting the mourner. Because inaction most definitely screams a loud statement of not caring, even though this is often not at all the case.

This is especially true in situations where the actual laws of mourning do not apply. When one sits shivah there is a natural structure for people to come and visit and for people to offer to bring food and help in other ways. Yet there are times that someone is not required by Jewish law to mourn officially, though has suffered severe loss nonetheless, be it of a very close friend or not an immediate family member family member, or perhaps not even a death, but a significant injury or life threatening medical condition of a loved one. In this situation, if we do not reach out, this person is truly left all alone to suffer and mourn, and no one should have to feel abandoned during such a time.

The following list is a number of suggestions that I offer based on my own personal experiences as well as those who are close to me who have suffered loss and have shared these suggestions. I hope you will find them helpful and that they will give you the courage to face your friend.

DO:

  1. Do call and acknowledge that you are aware of the situation and are available if the person wants to talk. If this is too difficult for you, then sending a sympathy card in the mail is also an appropriate way to show that you care. When you don’t, you often leave the mourner wondering if you even know and if so, why haven’t you contacted her.

  2. Do find out what kind of help the person is receiving. Does she have help with her other children? Does she have someone to help with the cooking or cleaning? Speak to other community members and friends and organize a schedule for people to cook meals for a few weeks and have the kids over for playdates. Try to handle carpools or other daily errands so that they do not need to do them. Offer to go grocery shopping for them. Figure out what is lacking, and try to either offer that help yourself or hire someone to do it.

  3. Do send flowers, or if there are children, buy them some presents and toys so they have something to play with and to make them feel better. Remember that their parents are dealing with grief and are not able to focus on them as much during this time.

  4. Do let other people know of the situation so that they do not cause further grief by approaching the mourners unaware. For example, nothing is more painful for a woman who has lost a pregnancy or baby than to be asked repeatedly “What did you have, a boy or a girl?” every time she sees acquaintances.

  5. Do offer to accompany your friend when she ventures back out into the world. Offer to go with her the first time to the bank, the grocery store, the school. Be her emotional bodyguard who can help avoid painful encounters and unnecessary small talk. This way you can let clerks or others know of the situation so that your friend can avoid having to answer for herself. This will also give her strength to deal with these situations in the future.

  6. Do ask how her husband and children are dealing with the loss. Recognize that this was their child/sibling as well.

  7. Do try to do something in memory of the person who passed. It is very comforting to the mourner to know that things are being done for their loved one, be it buying Jewish prayerbooks for the synagogue, dedicating learning in his or her memory or planting a tree in Israel.

  8. Do remember that each and every person mourns in different ways. It is not uncommon for one to be very strong and optimistic immediately following a loss, only to be falling apart a few months later when the reality of that loss has completely sunk in. Make sure to call and touch base as time goes on, especially during the holidays and at other family oriented times when the loss is all the more apparent and painful.

  9. Do invite your friend out to a meal or to spend an afternoon together as the months pass. She may need some prompting or just that invitation to get out and start doing things again.

No one should have to feel abandoned during such a time

DON’T:

  1. Don’t tell someone you know how it feels because you don’t. We all mourn in different ways and we can never really know what it is like for the other, even if we have gone through something similar. And never compare loss. Never tell someone, “I know what you are going through with the loss of your child because last year when I lost my grandfather I was devastated….” Even though you may have dearly loved your grandfather and his loss may have been unbearable to you, it should not and cannot be compared to the loss of one’s child.

  2. Don’t avoid the person or pretend that nothing has happened. You are only making the mourner feel that much more abandoned and uncomfortable. Their loss is great enough without also having to feel that they have lost friends as well.

  3. Don’t ask questions or for information out of your own curiosity. If details haven’t been offered, assume the person doesn’t want to share them. You do not need to know how the person died, if anyone was there, if they did this or that…it doesn’t matter. These questions can be very painful for the mourner to recall and do not change the situation or the outcome.

  4. Don’t try and minimize the pain or tell the person how things will get better. A woman who has lost a baby does not want to hear how she can have another baby or that at least she knows she can get pregnant. A woman who has lost her husband doesn’t want to hear that she is young and will find someone else to marry. Acknowledge the pain and the rawness of their loss. They do not need solutions, they need support.

  5. Don’t expect that there is a set amount of time for the pain and that a year later the person should be “over it.”

  6. Don’t offer explanations for the loss or try to give it meaning unless the mourner asks for your advice or opinion. It is not for you to tell someone, “Everything happens for the best” or “Your baby must have had such a holy soul that G‑d wanted her back with him.” Even though these statements may be true, Chassidut teaches us that everything we say must be b’ofen ha’mitkabel meaning in a vessel, in a way, that the recipient is able to receive it.

I hope you have found the above helpful and that you will make the effort now to get in touch with your friend again. It is never too late and I would suggest starting by writing a letter and admitting that you were so uncomfortable that you weren’t sure what to do, but you are so pained by her loss and you think of her always and that you are sorry you didn’t let her know sooner.

May we all be blessed to know no more suffering or loss!

“Dear Rachel” is a bi-weekly column that is answered by a rotating group of experts. This question was answered by Sara Esther Crispe.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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Anonymous co.sp.co October 12, 2016

I lost my 22 year old son 6 years ago he died in his sleep of a heart urythmia..then last november my other son was in a tour bus accident went head on with an 18 wheeler in el paso..he and 5 other members of his band were airlifted to a level 1 trauma center there. When i got there he was in a coma with a head injury broken back , broken neck injured his knee broken sturnum two broken ankles. He was in a coma for 2 months..i lived in hospitals for two months..almost 1 year later i still cant deal with it..i dont know what to do Reply

Anonymous WA August 26, 2015

Thank you I needed this advice today, and as always Chabad has helped. Reply

Anonymous Manchester February 5, 2015

Getting in touch with people after a bearevement Yes, please do! It does not have to be straight away, but let them know that you care., and that you are available to talk to.
I lost my husband to a brain tumour 2 years ago. We had a large group of friends (more his friends than mine). Apart from one or two, most stopped all communication with me and i really resent it still. I could have done with a lot of help in the few first months and nobody offered, or even called me. I had to fend on my own with 2 kids and deep financial trouble. I have contacted some of them to get help with a few things but every time i felt like i was begging for support. Nobody should be left to feel that way after a traumatic period in their life.
One of my friends started a company after losing her husband too and she expresses those feelings well in Cards that she makes. If you dont know what to say, perhaps a special card can say if for you. check out InspiredGoodbyes. Reply

Linda Colby October 6, 2014

Car accident One of my friend's daughter was in a horrible motorcycle accident a week ago. They are still trying to decide what to do about amputation of her left leg below the knee. She is a beautiful 26 year old, married, no children. I want to send her a card, but i don't know what to say to her. Can you help me? Reply

Kyle Brazil June 17, 2014

You say 'give support'...I don't even know what that is. What is support? I know it isn't just listening, I tried that a few times and in each one of them the person just stared at me with an expression like "so...I'm here crying and opening up to you, aren't you doing anything?". I don't know what to say, and if I try, it's always that "it's gonna be ok" yadda yadda. I feel useless. Reply

Christel Keller, Texas March 13, 2011

what to say? what to do? When our family was in a car accident and my daughter died, it was a primordal pain that really cannot be adequately described in words. At first there was shock to protect from the full brunt of the emotional blow. The best help at this time was when friends did the normal things for our family. Cook meals. clean the house, mow the lawn, even answer the phone. They came to sit with us and the house wasn't so empty. The tenderest moment I remember was when a lady I wasn't even good friends with walked me to my room late in the afternoon and tucked me under a quilt with a prayer for sleep. It was the little things that meant a lot. Also, having one person in charge of coordinating food gifts helped, so we received meals MWF. it was always enough for more than one dinner. Cards well past the first week meant a lot--you can read a card when you are ready and again if it was helpful. it is often just too much to answer the phone. If you call, leave a short message of love & care Reply

Lisa Providence, RI January 22, 2011

Don't Know What to Say Losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to a family, and I've know people who've gone through it myself. I sent them sympathy cards and even apologized to them for their loss. I don't know if comforting them alone will help, but you can try. Reply

Anonymous November 10, 2010

How to Deal with a Childless friend This is a really helpful article for a very difficult topic. Thank you for your insights.

Another difficult issue is dealing with a friend who is suffering fertility issues. Its important to be aware of how to deal with a friend in either of these situations. Reply

Anonymous August 22, 2008

Are flowers appropriate for a mourner? I think not during Shiva.

But I remember a beautiful lady named Connie A. who brought roses nearly every week to my mother (she should be well!) after she lost my father of blessed memory, after the shiva had ended.

Regarding shiva, I'd like to add to the list:
don't start talking to friends you meet there. It's very painful ad insensitive.

May we know no more pain and suffering. Reply

Anonymous buffalo, ny November 2, 2007

anniversary reactions You're so right , Kelly. The anguish at a child's death never goes away and unlike any other. And it's typically more intense on the anniversaries of the death. A neighbor's 9 year old daughter was murdered in the 1980s. Every year for several years on the anniversary of the murder her younger sister would come over and say that her mom needed aspirin or Imodium, but the visit was always the little girl's way of opening the door to talking about her sister. All I could really do to help was sit there and basically let her say what was on her mind.

And of course, I gave her the aspirin and Imodium for her mom. Reply

Kelly Rae Syndey, Australia October 30, 2007

A hug says so much Man times people don't know what to do or say so they do nothing. Or worse yet, they ask the mourner, "Let me know if you need anything" That call will NEVER come. It is simply too difficult.

We have prescribed rituals for mourning, including what to do {sit with the mourner} and for how long someone will stop their own life and publicly mourn the death of their loved one.

However, the death of one's child is impossible to describe. The pain is so horrible, inconceivable, actually. Therefore, even when the prescribed time period is over, it is good to remember the grieving during the holidays, the birthday of their child and the day that their child died. Perhaps a simple card, a handwritten note or a quiet visit.

Or perhaps just a hug.

My love to all....

Reply

Anonymous Buffalo, New York October 29, 2007

To Kelly Hi Kelly. I read your comment about the death of your child. I am sorry, and I too wish someone would have been their to help you through it.

I've always felt awkward dealing with people who are in mourning until this summer when a neighbor's mother died. I didn't know what to do. So when I ran into her on the street I just asked if I could give her a hug and she said SURE! Sometimes anticipating a need and then asking is the best thing to do.

When my dad died I remember the most helpful thing to our family was when a relative brought over lots of cold cuts and rolls so we didn't have to cook or eat huge meals.

Thank you for writing this article, Sara. Reply

Kelly Sydney, AU January 7, 2007

I have lost a child. It was the most difficult time in my life and I did not know how to grieve and let go. I had nobody to assist me in this process, so I hung on.

How I wished someone would have just come and sat with me. Drank a cup of tea with me. Helped me to remember to pray.

However, my child was the product of a rape. I made the personal decision, although I was single and young, to keep the baby and raise him myself. I had a good income and had saved enough to support us easily for the first year of his life.

Yet when he died, I was the only person in the world that truly knew him. Any mother that has carried a child can relate, I am sure.

Although he was stillborn...to me he was living until the last moment...He was still born.

Thank you so much for reminding us that Torah doesn't leave it up to us to decide how to help the mourner. We are instructed by Torah since the divine author knows what we need better than any of us, even ourselves.
Reply

anonymous October 29, 2006

Same here Had that same problem but i realized that people who have had a loss don't need to have fancy talk. I decided to just call my friend (who had a loss) even though I had nothing to say.When it came to that subject she told me how it feels. It wasn't hard at all!! Reply

Anonymous August 24, 2006

Thanks, from Yerachmiel's Mommy Dear Sara Esther,
Thank you so much for writing this necessary article. We have experienced a great loss in our lives and have had salt rubbed into the wounds (unintentionally of course) by people's lack of knowledge in proper behavior to tragedy. G-d willing these practical tips will help to guide those who need it. Better yet, there should be no more need for it at all! Reply

Chavah August 23, 2006

thank you Thank you for sharing your precious wisdom on how to provide sympathy and comfort to those mourning the loss of a child, which is something none of us wish to have to go through, but such is life, we may encounter and need the help of what to say
Thank you Reply

Kevin Gilad Benyamin Smith August 23, 2006

Silence, Empathy and Mourning In other noble cultures, specifically Native American cultures, silence is considered a high form of respect and empathy. I have never felt awkward mourning with a friend in silence except for the sound of tears. Reply

Anonymous brooklyn, ny usa August 21, 2006

I was very moved by the article.
unfortunately very applicable when times are very dim.
I almost cried Reply

Esther Tauby Richmond, Canada August 20, 2006

I don't know what to say Dear Sara Esther,
I just read this article and wanted to say that it was very well written with practical tips for people to know what to do or not to do when confronted with the very real problem of feeling uncomfortable after hearing about the loss of a child, R"L. Thank you so much for doing your part in helping with this essential "ahavas yisroel" service. All your articles are excellent, but this one, was exceptional. May Hashem give you koach to continue in your holy work Reply