The Problem With Death Platitudes

When someone you know has a death in the family, there are a few things you’re expected to do. When my brother died, people came out of the woodwork to comfort my family, yet many ended up relying on us to console them because the story of his suicide made them sad. 

Others brought us lots of flowers and casseroles. The flowers were beautiful but bittersweet, and when they began to wilt, the gloom returned. And the casseroles… All. Those. Casseroles. They took up a lot of room in the refrigerator and usually came in glass dishes that then needed to be washed and returned to their owners. Despite their good intentions, the gesture just created additional burden for us in our time of grieving.

People also had kind words to lend, but they gave them without consideration that our beliefs might conflict. When my brother died, I considered myself agnostic, so to hear things like, “He’s in a better place now…He’s with God now…God needed him… He’s smiling down on your family… Prayers for you and your family,” brought me no comfort. I knew people meant well, but the phrasing they chose was more in line with their own religious beliefs and spirituality, not mine.

While I appreciated the generous outpour of sympathy, it only reminded me just how little people knew us and our needs.

The biggest problem with death platitudes is that they aren’t catered to the people who receive them.

The next time someone for whom you care is faced with a death of a loved one and you, being the kind soul you are, want to reach out and lend some love, I encourage you to first think about their specific needs. If you’d like to bring food, bring something they like in disposable packaging, especially if it requires little to no refrigeration. Bonus points if it’s a guilty pleasure food because death is an excellent time to eat your feelings. (Soothes the brain, you know?) If you’d like to give them a shoulder for tears, bring tissues. If they’re not big talkers, help distract them with activities they enjoy, especially if you can make them laugh. Try not to greet them with a pity-laden facial expression and a “Howwww arrrre youuuu feeeeeeeling?” because if they weren’t feeling terrible before then, you’ve just reminded them that they should be sad. And if they need a breather from entertaining people (particularly in the first few days after tragedy strikes), please respect that.

Most importantly, follow up. People are quick to get their two cents in when something first happens, but they all too often avoid you a month or two afterwards because they don’t want the conversation to be awkward or depressing, and they’re not sure what to say. Don’t worry about that. If you liked each other before the death and your relationship is worth half a damn, you’ll be able to bounce back.

I realize a lot of this is easier said than done because you might have no idea how to cater your generosity and love to meet a particular person’s needs. That’s not your fault. You’re not a mind reader, and people tend to err on the side of politeness, even when grieving. This leaves them less than likely to explicitly ask for help with emotions, housework, and all those other fun daily life happenings that become more difficult in times of crisis.

The point is that reaching out will let them know that you acknowledge their tragedy and care about them, but reaching out in a way that’s actually relevant to them will make a world of difference in an otherwise confusing and dismal time.

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