During my life I have had more opportunities than most to witness people struggling with words to express sympathy. Not only did my parents die well before their time, but I have lost a son, a husband and a daughter out of the natural order of things. I do not presume to speak on behalf of all bereaved persons, but for me, I appreciated people taking the time to say something – anything. There are no answers or magic words of comfort that take the pain away, but it has always helped me when people open up a conversation about my children or my husband.
When my son died of a drug overdose at the age of 30, not only was it difficult to describe how I felt but there were people around me who appeared to have no words at all. They simply did not know what to say; words were not available that could describe their own mixed emotions. It is possible that these friends were struggling with their own mortality and the loss of words was very much related to a discomfort born of fear.
When my husband was in the hospice close to dying, we decided to marry. It was an attempt to do something positive in the midst of despair. Planning the wedding and then reflecting on the event afterwards provided great comfort. The thing I remember most however, was my partner Michael dictating the words he wanted for his vows to me. They were incredibly beautiful and showed something of the beautiful soul that he was. Those words may never have been spoken had we not decided to marry. They remain forever in my heart.
After my husband died, I found myself in conversation with a colleague. He stated that he didn’t know I was on my own. “Yes, I am,” I said. “My husband died.”
“Oh”, he said, “it must have been a good thing then. I imagine you were quite unhappy, as you seem quite happy now”. In this instance, I felt that my colleague, in his friendly puppy-like manner, really wanted to make a comment and although it was totally inappropriate, I appreciated that he didn’t avoid the subject. I even managed to find the humour in the situation. In my experience, most people genuinely want to provide words of comfort. I would suggest that it’s better to say something than avoid making a comment for fear of saying the wrong thing.
Whether or not people can find any words, one thing is certain, it can be difficult. I certainly needed to hear words at my times of loss, and in the weeks and years that followed. The pain is not something that goes away, although is does become more manageable. Those who have suffered loss may feel that they need to stop speaking of it after a certain period of time, in case their friends become tired of listening. This is often well before the bereaved person is ready to stop talking about it. In such situations, words, or the lack of them, take on great importance. Sometimes it is just good to bring the departed person into a conversation, even in a light-hearted manner. One of my daughter’s friends always asks Phillipa (my daughter) to find her a car park. Phillipa always seems to oblige.
Words were very important to me as I moved through a grieving process. Sometimes I used words conventionally, as when I spoke about my emotions with counsellors. At other times I used words more creatively, writing poetry or letters. On one occasion I wrote a letter of apology to my son for my perceived shortcomings as a mother. I turned my letter into a paper boat and allowed it to float down a river and out to sea. It didn’t immediately make me feel better, but it was a step along the way.
When my daughter died several years after my son, I once again turned to words. I wrote a children’s book about her death. Writing a whole book is not for everyone, but writing down one’s stream of consciousness or keeping a journal might be helpful. My daughter’s small sons, aged five and seven, spoke at her funeral. Rather than ‘protecting’ them from the pain of death, we supported them in their wish to play a role in the service. If words are not spoken or written, they may block or interrupt natural processes of wellbeing.
Let’s face it, the English language doesn’t provide even the writers among us with language to express ourselves fully in times of emotional stress. While it will remain difficult to find words in times of loss, it is so important to try. A bereaved person knows that the words won’t bring their loved one back, but to know by people’s words that others are listening and supporting is a beautiful gift at a very sad time.
Barbara Snook: Dr Barbara Snook is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Auckland in the Dance Studies programme. She is currently researching the use of an arts rich pedagogy to facilitate learning in all subject areas of the school curriculum. She enjoys travelling, writing and teaching community dance.
Come Dance with Me is available at Bellamy’s Gallery, 495 Portobello Road, Macandrew Bay, Dunedin or by ordering from Barbara Snook at firstname.lastname@example.org