I’ve just come across an online reference to a conference that took place in Glasgow a few months ago. It was called ‘Everyday Compassion: Supportive responses to dying and bereavement by schools, neighbourhoods and workplaces.’ I didn’t read much more, but I was interested in the fact that there had been such a conference as it’s something for which I have long thought there is a need. To some of you, this might sound ridiculous (which probably means you have no problem in expressing compassion), but, in my experience of walking with grief, and in talking to others about their experience, it seems there is a need to help people express open and supportive attitudes and behaviours relating to death and bereavement.
The much-loved Mary Berry, queen of cakes, lost her son in a car accident when he was 19 years old. She sometimes speaks for Child Bereavement UK, drawing on her experience to explain what’s most helpful for others going through the same thing. For her, when you meet a bereaved person in the street, you cross the street towards the person, not away from them, as so many people are apt to do. This was her advice: “It’s worth crossing the road and saying how sorry you are and thinking of a happy memory of them, or something nice to say.”
It sounds so simple, and of course we would all do that, wouldn’t we? We all care: we feel for people in a tragedy; we tell our friends about it, how our hearts go out to them; we’ll close the door and cry in private. But then, when faced with meeting the bereaved, our actions sometimes don’t marry up with our feeling, because expressing oneself is just too hard: “I don’t know what to say,” being the excuse we tell ourselves. J.’s sister died last year, and she was back doing the school run after a week, standing at the gates, hollowed out and bereft. She told me how the other parents were stuck dumb; they said nothing. Why? It wasn’t a lack of compassion; it wasn’t a lack of care or empathy. It could only have been some kind of fear at being unable to express it, or thinking that their words would be inadequate. Whatever it was, I have discovered that being struck dumb is not uncommon, and many people seem to have lost the vocabulary to simply say, “I’m sorry”.
The truth is, whatever you say, no matter how awkwardly put or clumsily phrased, is better than saying nothing. The most awful thing has happened in someone’s life and it must not be ignored. I’ve heard people say, “It was months ago, best not remind her,” or, “That was last year, it’s all done and dusted now,” or, “I don’t want to go stirring up old emotions.” Another fact: it’s never too late to say something.
T. tells a story of being taken to a wake as a small child in rural Ireland; her first induction in the ways of condolences. “Go up and shake Mrs. Mac’s hand and say you’re sorry,” her mother shoved her across the room. She was giving the child the shortened version of the stock Irish phrase used at every wake: “sorry for your trouble.” T.’s protestations that she had done nothing wrong won her a clip around her ear, so she did what she was told, puzzled to be apologising for a transgression she couldn’t think of. It seems like a brutal induction into grief etiquette (and I am not recommending it) but T. is one of the most openly compassionate people I know. I think many people veer away from saying anything for fear of the words coming out as thoughtless, inane, tactless, insensitive. But it’s hard to get it wrong. “I’m sorry” – that’s all it takes. After my husband died my eight year old neighbour did it better than most, coming straight up to me with a hug and speaking plainly, “I’m sorry your man died”. I am too J., I am too, I told him. And we went outside into the garden to play swing ball.
‘Mid-Term Break’, by Seamus Heaney
I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.
In the porch I met my father crying—
He had always taken funerals in his stride—
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.
The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand
And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’.
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand
In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.
Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four-foot box, a foot for every year.