What not to say

Some years ago, a friend’s baby died, her first child. You don’t know what to say in the face of personal tragedy, but somehow you manage to express your sympathy, listen to your friend, affirm your friendship, and offer your help when needed.

But someone always gets it wrong. I still remember that friend telling me about someone who got it unforgivably wrong. That person visited the friend, weeks later, and said she was sorry not to have dropped by to express sympathy before but she had been so busy with her children.

It’s not that hard. (Well, it is hard, but it must be done.) When someone has suffered a loss, you say, “I’m sorry.” You offer your help in any way needed. You don’t

  • Offer words of comfort.
  • Tell them you know exactly how they feel.
  • Speculate why this might have happened.
  • Assume your company is wanted.

bookcoverI was reminded of this when reading Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir of the loss of her first child, “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.” Her baby was stillborn. The most unforgivable comment this time was made by the midwife, whose question, when she visited after McCracken delivered her dead child was, “Elizabeth, you were careful about what you ate, weren’t you?”

McCracken’s book is remarkable. She expresses anger and grief and groundless guilt, and she relives the year of her pregnancy and the year after it (when she becomes pregnant again and delivers a live, healthy child).

It is, surprisingly, a most readable book: not depressing, although you feel the depth of her anguish; there are humorous moments mixed in with the dark ones. Here she is on black humour:

Now what I think that woman in Florida meant is: lighter things will happen to you; birds will steal your husband’s sandwich on the beach, and your child will still be dead, and your husband’s shock will still be funny, and you will spend your life trying to resolve this.

As for me, I believe that if there’s a God — and I am as neutral on the subject as possible — then the most basic proof of His existence is black humour. What else explains it, that odd, reliable comfort that billows up at the worst moments, like a beautiful sunset woven out of the smoke over a bombed city.

The book is a reminder of how you don’t forget grief, but you put it into perspective and learn how to weave it into the fabric of your life as time goes by. Friends and acquaintances can help in many ways, but thinking before they speak is probably the easiest service to perform. Listening rather than speaking may be the best advice of all.


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