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Sometimes, silence helps

Have you ever fumbled, stuttered or stammered while having to pay condolences to someone who’s had a death in the family? Read what not to say when someone has died.

india Updated: Nov 21, 2010 01:13 IST
Sonal Kalra

I fumble, I stutter, I stammer, I look sideways…I just don’t know what to say. And I’m not normally like this at all, except when I have to pay condolences to someone who’s had a death in the family. It’s a stress that I face, am not sure if you do, too. But the way I’ve seen people behave awkwardly in mourning ceremonies and funerals, I’m quite certain that many of you will relate to what I’m saying.

We just don’t know the right things to say when someone dies, or for that matter, even when we are expressing sympathy in case of any other mishap. We, in fact, specialise in muttering all wrong things. At least I do. And God also doesn't leave any chance to make it worse for me through His practical jokes. Sample this incident that I may have written about earlier as well.

An old gentleman in the neighbourhood, who I would often bump into, used to mention how, following his doctor's advice, he’s planning to visit a hill station to avoid the city pollution. One day, after not having seen him for many days, I saw his wife sitting on the park bench. Unaware that the man had died while I was away on tour, I cheerfully asked Mrs Sharma where Mr Sharma was. ‘He's gone’, she replied, very philosophically (and vaguely — my only defence for what I said next)— “At last! That’s simply great. You should have also gone with him.” Imagine her face, and my plight. Anyhow, this may be have been a case of ironical misunderstanding but my point is that even when we are fully aware that we are supposed to comfort the grieving, we end up messing it all up and say things that are not helpful in the least and sometimes downright ridiculous. So, I spoke to some people who’ve been at the receiving end of foolish words from those who were trying to share the grief…and here are 5 things your should NOT say when someone is grieving.

‘Everything happens for the best’:
Whoaaat? How is someone’s death, for the best- unless, perhaps, you happen to be the beneficiary of their will… and even then you can’t say such a thing.

‘At least he didn’t suffer’:
Now that is a really insensitive statement. Were you expecting the poor man to suffer before he died? And should the family feel happy that he did not? I know that our intention, when we say this, is to express that dying in one’s sleep or a sudden death is better than a painful death after prolonged illness but somehow in those moments, it doesn’t sound right to say this to a person who’s lost a loved one. My advice: don’t say anything that starts with ‘at least’.

‘It’s God’s will’:
Stop blaming God with statements that don’t really mean anything. In any case, the person before you must know that everything is God’s will. What are you trying to explain or achieve by muttering such a vague sentence?

‘Look on the brighter side. He must be in heaven’:
This is our favourite, utterly ridiculous statement. If someone, whose mom is already dead, loses her father too, we say, ‘he must have got re-united with your mom in heaven’. Are we crazy? No, seriously... are we?

‘I know someone who passed away the same way’:
Oh puhleez! We anyway don’t leave any chance, in all circumstances, to counter peoples’ experience by narrating our own, but at least leave death alone. Don’t start recalling how someone else too died of a stroke suddenly, or how someone else you know met with a fatal accident. Someone has lost a close one. Stop trying to score a point in these pointless conversations.

Now that I’ve told you — and myself — what not to do, let’s come to what we should. I think just saying ‘I’m so sorry’ works much better than any flub. It sounds genuine, you hopefully mean it and it won’t disturb the grieving moment for the one bereaved. And even better, just be there for them, silently. A quiet hug, a pat on the hand and simply listening to them talk about their loss is what you should do. Sometimes no words are needed.

Sonal Kalra has not seen Mrs Sharma in many days. Maybe she took her advice. Maybe they got reunited in heaven. Oh God, no. Send your calmness tricks at sonal.kalra@hindustantimes.com.