Hello my friends! I have encountered a lot of memorable experiences in my journey through life. Some like the following stay in my mind and heart.
A few years ago I was asked to conduct the funeral for a pastor colleague’s mother. We had met during the time his mother was declining due to her illness. When she died he didn’t hesitate to ask me to conduct her memorial service. he said he was too emotional to lead it himself. We talked a bit about his love for his mother. Our conversation went on to include his reluctance regarding leading funerals. He told me the following experience he had when he was a younger minister.
He was asked to meet with a young couple whose baby had died. Needless to say, the couple was devastated. The mother especially was overcome with her grief. My friend told me that once the funeral was arranged he was extremely anxious about it. Having done a number of funerals and memorial services I empathized with his anxiety. His story continued and gripped my heart.
The day of the baby’s funeral was a perfect storm for making it a sorrowful event for all involved. The weather was terrible. The minister had very little experience with grieving pople. He had never encountered the death of a child. The baby was the young couple’s first child. My friend would later recall that day was one he wished never happened.
After the funeral service in a local church the minister accompanied the funeral director in a hearse. The young couple and family members were in another hearse. When they arrive at the cemetary it was pouring rain and chilly. As the minister said some words trying to comfort the family as the baby was laid to rest he uttered an unintentioned but inappropriate statement. It is a statement I term “garbage language.” As the final words by the minister were concluded the young mom fell to her knees in the muddy grass. She was sobbing deep from in her soul. Not knowing what else to do or so say, my friend reached over to the young grieving mother and said, “I understand!” Without missing a beat the mother looked up at hime and said, “How can you understand? Did your child die too?”
As everyone was leaving the cemetary my friend recalls how emotinally empty he felt inside. He could never undo his garbage language statement to the young mom. It seered into his mind and heart, however, that he would be careful of what he said to people in grief. It was a hard and bitter lesson for him.
Garbage language is unfortunately common in western culture. Many people still have not learned the etiquette of grief language. Many still stumble along in a supposedly well-meaning way in their efforts to comfort grieving people. I forget the number of times people have said to me regarding a grieving loved one, “I don’t know what to say.” It seems to be a challenge for many when I simply say something like, “Perhaps, if anything, just listen to the person.” Many of us seem to think that we have to say something to those who grieve. In most situations the non-verbal communication may be the most effective and caring. This includes a hug, an arm across the person’s shoulder or sitting quietly and allowing the person to cry. Perhaps the only talking needed is the sound of the grieving person’s voice.
I hope we can learn to throw off the shackles of garbage language. Please don’t be offended when I give some examples of garbage language now. If you are offended there is still hope for you. In the context of grief how often have you used or heard this statement or something like it? “If you need anything just let me know!” That, my friends, is garbage language. There are other horrific statements that remind us garbage language is unfortunately alive and well. Here are some other common forms of words that miss the mark and therefore are garbage language. “I thought you would be over your grief by now.” “You can always have another baby!” “Well, at least your mother lived a long life.” “He’s at peace now!” “Wow, that’s sad, but your not the only one who has grieved.”
Hopefully you get my point!
My friends, I’ve said it before. Listen! Avoid turning to your own perceived wisdom in thinking you have to say something. Listen! If you love people and want to sincerely be present for those who grieve then listen! Be there for people after the funeral is a memory. Remember special dates the grieving person may spend on her or his own. Cut the lawn for them. Drive them if they need to go out somewhere. Perhaps in their grief they aren’t really fit to drive on their own. Affirm their pain. Recognize your ability to be silent with those who grieve is a gift to them. Just “be.”
Beware of garbage language!