Do you feel awkward at funerals? Here’s what not to say to those who are grieving | books$excerpts | Hindustan Times
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Do you feel awkward at funerals? Here’s what not to say to those who are grieving

In her 2015 memoir, The Last Act of Love, British author Cathy Rentzenbrink wrote about a personal tragedy – the loss of her 16-year-old brother – that changed the course of her life. In her new book, A Manual for Heartache, she offers sound advice to those struggling with grief and loss.

books Updated: Oct 02, 2017 08:09 IST
Cathy Rentzenbrink
All cultures have rituals around death and mourning but, in our increasingly secular society, it’s easy to find ourselves unsure of what to do, says author Cathy Rentzenbrink.
All cultures have rituals around death and mourning but, in our increasingly secular society, it’s easy to find ourselves unsure of what to do, says author Cathy Rentzenbrink. (Shutterstock)

It seems ridiculous that in the face of someone else’s misfortune we spend time worrying about our own behaviour, but it’s only human and is particularly true when it comes to death and grief. I’m sure it was easier in Victorian times when there were prescribed rules, when society and the Church provided a framework. There was guidance on what to wear, how to communicate with people, how much time should elapse before everyone rejoined the business of life. Visible signs such as black crêpe and mourning brooches made of jet acted as clues to the rest of the world. Like a version of the ‘Baby on Board’ sign stuck in the back windscreen of a car, the blackness served as a warning that an individual needed to be treated kindly. All cultures have rituals around death and mourning but, in our increasingly secular society, it’s easy to find ourselves unsure of what to do.

Having thought about it a lot and been on the receiving end of many different approaches, this is my attempt at an etiquette guide for bad news.

What not to say

I’m not generally in favour of negative instructions. The Internet is full of don’ts and I worry that we’ll end up with such long lists of what not to say that we’ll be forced into a place of resentful silence. That said, there are a few horrors I’d recommend avoiding:

Everything happens for a reason

I am not a violent person but being told this has always made me want to punch people in the face. It’s an attempt to mould other people’s distress into a belief system. If there is ever a time to seek meaning in tragedy – and I’m not sure there is – it certainly isn’t in the immediate aftermath.

Often people blunder into inanity or tactlessness because they are reaching for something, anything, rather than silence. Perhaps we need to accept that we don’t have the power to fix anyone, but could just be there for them with love.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

This is presumably a well-meaning attempt to offer a silver lining but I’ve never liked being on the receiving end of it. I am unable to find any consolation in the fact that what happened to my brother resulted in an opportunity for self-development or personal growth for me. I also don’t think it’s true. For years, I felt like a pale version of the girl I might have been. I’d survived by the skin of my teeth but felt depleted rather than augmented by the experience. I wasn’t more resilient; I didn’t know whether I would survive another blow and I couldn’t stop mourning my old self. I worried that with one more sad little straw, the exhausted camel’s back would break.

God would not give you more than you can handle

How can anyone believe in the kind of God who sits up in the sky working out just how much tragedy and pain one person can take? There’s a peculiarly passive-aggressive note to this. It looks like an attempt to console but feels like a criticism – if God would not give you more than you can handle, then any failure to handle it is your fault.

It comes to us all

This was said by her neighbour to a friend of mine who had just suffered a tragedy of biblical proportions. ‘Does it?’ she wanted to say. ‘Does it?’

Things to avoid

Any sort of kicking off

In my years of being a barmaid I saw a lot of post-funeral arguments and humbly suggest that if you feel cross because of the way the service was organized, or how you were or weren’t communicated with, you should try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. No situation is improved by people squabbling over the

venue for the wake, the policy around floral tributes, or the vexed question of who gets to carry the coffin or ride in the family hearse. Maybe just accept that no one will be at their best on a sad day and try to rise above it.

Getting carried away by your own sense of loss

This is tricky. It is obviously appropriate to acknowledge the qualities of the lost loved one and how much they meant to you, but resist the temptation to position yourself at the centre of everything. This happens at funerals when the next of kin end up acting as hosts and have to mop up the tears of those who are less closely affected.

Publisher: Pan Macmillan, pages: 224, price: Rs 499.

Crossing the road

Telling someone that you are thinking of them with love, and offering practical help, is surely an improvement on crossing the road to avoid having to face them and find words.

Asking why they’re worrying about it

With death and grief, we know the gravity of the situation. When someone is struggling under a different burden, it’s not helpful to tell them that their problem isn’t as big a deal as they think it is. Always respect whatever is weighing on someone’s mind.

Saying something just for the sake of it

Listening is important, something I often forget in my eagerness to try to make someone feel better, show them I understand, or offer practical advice they may not have thought of. A friend who volunteered for the Samaritans found the training in active listening useful for life. She wasn’t there to judge or offer solutions, just to listen.

I like the notion of silent sympathy, which Bobbie from The Railway Children is good at. She knows when people are unhappy and makes them feel loved without having to tell them all the time how sorry she is for them.

Often people blunder into inanity or tactlessness because they are reaching for something, anything, rather than silence. Perhaps we need to accept that we don’t have the power to fix anyone, but could just be there for them with love.

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