YOU MAY HAVE heard the story of the man who went away on a trip and called the person house-sitting for him to ask about Billy, the traveler’s beloved cat. The house-sitter replied, “He fell off the roof yesterday, broke his neck, and died.”
Grief-stricken, the man complained about the insensitive way in which the house-minder broke the news. “You should have started out more gently,” he said. “You should have told me that Billy had a lovely day yesterday. That it was bright and sunny, so he went up onto the roof . . . then gradually worked your way around to the bad news.”
When the man had to go away again some months later, the same person did the house-sitting. This time the task included looking after the traveler’s elderly mother, who had come to live with him. When the man called home, he asked about his mom. The reply started: “Well, your mom had a lovely day yesterday. It was bright and sunny, so she went up onto the roof . . . ”
There is something about bereavement that often brings out the clumsy in us, isn’t there? A friend who lost a sibling suddenly was asked by an associate, “So who’s going to have their car, then?”
When I learned from a telephone call during a business trip that my mom had died, the person I shared the news with, still rather shell-shocked, promptly launched into an extended story about when their mother had died.
Now, to give them their due, both responders didn’t simply ignore the issue like some people do because they don’t know what to say. They stepped forward rather than retreating, so I give them some points for effort.
And, ascribing best intentions in both cases, I’ll assume these people were trying to show interest and care. But each seemed to fall into the trap we can face when confronted with others’ bad news: we often plunge into details—asking theirs or sharing ours—to avoid an awkward silence.
Sharing our own, similar experience can be an attempt to identify. We want to demonstrate that we know something of what they are going through. But done too quickly, it can tend to minimize the other’s grief, as if to tell them what they are going through isn’t that different or that big a deal.
But when a sinkhole opens up in your life, you don’t want it measured against others. You just want someone to stand beside you, look down and say something like, “That’s a horrible big hole. I’m so sorry for you. Anything I can do?”
Maybe the kindest thing we can do for someone facing grief is simply be willing to be uncomfortable, to bear the jagged edges rather than try to gather and sew them up neatly.