WILLIAMS’ DO'S AND DON'TS
A Suggested List of Do's and Don'ts in order
to be specific, and at the risk of sounding
Note to myself: remember
that what I have found comforting would
not necessarily be so to others, so I speak
only for myself. Also, emphasize, if possible,
my understanding that we are here to discuss
a a (mutual)
problem: parents whose children have
died are often, it seems to me, screaming
to be heard and there seems to be no one
who will listen. And standing a little to
the side are clergymen and medical people
and friends who are wanting terribly to
help and don't know what to do.
DON'T wait for "the right words." Many
kinds of words are possible and bereaved parents
need them right away and as time goes on,
as well. If you are writing a letter, don't
worry if you can't spell or write what you
perceive as "a good letter."
DON'T say nothing. Almost anything is better
than nothing. Several of my friends have still
not said anything to me about Rhys. What it
has meant to me is that because I am a different
person since his death and they have not acknowledged
his death, I am in a sense a stranger to them.
We have not met under the new circumstances.
They may not feel estranged but I feel so.
DON'T stay away on the assumption that you're
not wanted, that you'll be in the way. I'd
rather have too many people coming and going
or get overly tired than be ignored.
DON'T feel that you will make the person
who is grieving feel worse or that you may
remind her of her loss when possibly she has
forgotten for the moment. I think of Rhys
constantly on some level, so when someone
speaks of him, I feel more real, more normal,
than when I am cut off and in a world full
of strangeness and loneliness.
DON'T use busy ness as an excuse. I find
that I am more impatient with this reaction
than with almost any other.
Example: A. wrote: "I have been thinking
of you a great deal since you called me
about Rhys two months ago and I hope you
know that. I've been too busy to write but
am finally grabbing a few minutes under
DON'T say "I know exactly how you feel," or, "It's
like when my mother died." No one knows
how another person feels and no one's experience
is like another's; similar, perhaps, but
not the same. In the same category, comparing
a parent's feelings after a child's death
with the feelings of a divorced person is
GO EASY on "How are you?"s. It's
hard to say, "Fine," when you
feel lousy. I find it very soothing when
I meet people on the street who say, "Hello,
Carole." Period. Or answer the telephone
and hear someone say, "I've missed
seeing you," or something like that.
It's a little thing, perhaps, but sometimes
it takes more energy than you'd believe
to respond to the conventional question, "How
are you?" People sometimes ask you
pointedly that question, and that's a different
DO's (less specific and more complicated):
REMEMBER that people's timetables differ.
Where one person may be beginning to see light
at the end of five or six months, another
may be just starting to cry. So be available.
DO LISTEN not just to what's being said by
the person experiencing grief, but to what's
not being said. Rather than rush in to support
or agree or just to fill a void, sometimes
just wait, even when it's painful. Your friend
is on new ground altogether and needs space
and time to formulate her thoughts.
IF you can't think of anything to say,
sometimes the SIMPLEST GESTURES OR STATEMENTS
are comforting and remain in the grieving
person's memory. Examples:
B. came to my door recently and said very
quietly and with feeling, "I think
about you a lot but I don't know what to
do. I guess I'm not a very good friend."
C. came up to us after Rhys's service, face
red with weeping, tears streaming down cheeks,
put his arms around us and left without a
D. was working at the polling booth and,
as Robin and I finished voting and turned
toward the door, she came up behind me,
touched me on the shoulder and said, "May I just
hug you?" Then she did.
The bringing of BOOKS, ARTICLES, SENTENCES
E's bringing me the sentence of Camus: "In
the midst of winter I finally learned
there was in me an invincible summer."
F's sending me the excerpt from Anne Lindbergh.
G's bringing me the quote from Alan Paton.
LETTERS have been, for me, especially
good, partly because they can be re read.
Also, sometimes people can write what they
can not say. Example:
H., who is hurtfully cheery in person,
wrote a marvelously sensitive letter.
And often letters will stimulate thought,
maybe because what people write under
these circumstances requires thought, perhaps
more than speech. And people who grieve
need to think. Examples:"Find the strength to accept the pain." "Let him go a little." "I've
never known how parents survive the loss
of a child, but that is what survivors
ANGER AND PASSION of friends helped me.
Example: H.'s fierce, "There is no
DO let people talk about their child and
their feelings. Sometimes it's almost like
a game to get your friends to let you do that.
Lunch with several friends, particularly intelligent, warmhearted
women who had asked me to lunch because of Rhys's death. Since no
one mentioned him for an hour and I was beginning to get that unreal
feeling, I waited for an opening and pounced when someone mentioned
Anne Lindbergh. I said that she had inspired me to write down my
thoughts and feelings recently and that I had been doing a lot of
that. No one responded and we went on to talk about the high cost
THINGS I REMEMBER: a single rose, cuttings
from plants of a neighbor. People don't need
to send expensive flowers. In fact, though
one appreciates the thought and is grateful
to the giver, floral arrangements can become
very depressing, just because they accumulate
and your house begins to look like a funeral
ENCOURAGING COMMENTS: Losing a child is such
a horrendous experience that often you don't
know whether you are functioning normally
or making any sense at all. It helps when
people tell you you're doing OK. Example:
I.'s comment when I said once that I felt
as though I were under water. She wrote to
me that for a person under water my voice
carried very well to her on shore, in fact
was unusually resonant.
P.S. to example:
A sense of humor also helps, in one's self and in one's friends.
I remember that within the hour that we heard that Rhys was dead,
we laughed quite naturally over something our baby granddaughter
General remarks about my minister and
ways in which I think the clergy can be helpful
to their parishoners and friends:
What touches me most about our minister
is his attitude and solicitude. He has spent
a lot of time at my kitchen table, just sitting.
Though his belief in God is strong and his
whole life and actions are rooted in his faith,
he has never mentioned God to me unless I
brought him up first. He has said this: "If
you're going to love, you're going to be vulnerable,
and if something happens to the person or
creature you love, you're going to get hurt.
But if you refuse to love and to take risks,
and to do it again and again, then you're
not living. You have to decide what kind of
person you are."
A friend's minister helped her and her husband
in a special way by asking them to tell him,
if they could, how they felt, what they were
thinking, reading, doing after the death of
their college age son, so that he could better
understand what they were enduring. Some of
my friends, not necessarily clergymen, have
also done this, have wanted to know what my
experience is like, an experience they hope
never to have but want to have some understanding
about. I find such questions, such loving
curiosity, helpful because it gives me a chance
to do something useful at a time when I feel
quite barren. My daughter recently wrote me
that she thought my depression was inevitable,
since one of my creations was dead. I think
she's right and that because parents have
lost a child, they need to create something
new, if it's only an idea.
And finally, maybe most important, some
very practical suggestions given me by my
Friends and relatives, if you can, tend
to the awful details about what to do with
the body of the dead child, particularly if
there has been an accident and the child is
not already at a hospital. Find out who are
trustworthy morticians and what the costs
involved are. If it is appropriate, suggest
alternatives to a funeral, such as cremation
followed by a memorial service. Parents are
numb at such a time and unless they have thought
a great deal before their tragedy and/or have
friends who are knowledgeable, they may make
Clergymen can be of enormous help if they
know facts and can, for instance, assure parents
that costs need not be excessive. Our minister
helped us not only with some of those larger
details, but also with a small but equally
important matter. He explained to us that
Rhys's ashes would not look like ashes exactly
and that we should be prepared for them to
stay on the ground for a while after we had
scattered them. I had never seen human ashes.
And, my husband suggests to clergymen, know
your people's beliefs before you talk about
theology. Let them give you clues as to what
they want to hear or talk about. Avoid cliche's
of comfort. Just be there, help them get through
a little time. I should add that my husband
and I consider ourselves very fortunate that
in the five months since Rhys's death, not
one person has told us that it was God's Will.
And rather than say, "Can I help?" try
to suggest specific things that you or someone
you can ask might do, like meet relatives
at the airport, always a dreadful chore, or
take children to school or market.
A final comment, which is a Helpful Thing but is more general than
the other more personal suggestions. I think clergymen can profit
from reading books about grief. There are many of them, some very
good. Talking to people is still the best avenue to understanding,
but sometimes grieving people do not know themselves why they
act or react in certain ways. I was not aware, for instance, until
I read about it, that restlessness is a by product of grief. It's
easy enough to recognize signs of sorrow like tears or silence
or withdrawal, but other indications are more subtle and reading
will be helpful.