We might say that this is a large congregation and we need to just expect that death and dying are part of the fabric of our life together. We might say that, but at a time when it seems like we have been experiencing a number of deaths—losses of men and women who were much loved and will be much missed—these words are not especially helpful or comforting.
I am feeling like there has been a great deal of loss, and that we might need to talk about what to say when we don’t know what to say. When I feel uncertain about “if, when and how” to talk about life’s challenges, transitions and losses, I often refer to a book by Nance Gilmartin, titled Healing Conversations: What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say. How do we move past discomfort, awkwardness and avoidance and find places of kindness and support?
One situation I hear about is when a congregant has been gone from active participation here, due to serious illness, and we learn he or she has passed away, without our being able to have said good-bye. Gilmartin suggests that we might respond to someone who feels this way by saying:
If I were in your shoes right now, I don’t know what I would have wished I had a chance to tell___________before she died. If you ‘d ever like to tell me, I am willing to listen.:
Or ask, the author suggests, whether it would help for them to say or write their unexpressed thoughts to another family member.
Another situation that occurs at times is when someone has been suffering for a long time, and the inclination is to say “It’s a blessing” that he or she is no longer debilitated and in pain. The author asks us to never assume we know how someone is feeling, even when a death is long expected. We might say, she suggests,something like:
It seems his death has ended a difficult time for all of you. I imagine it will take time to adjust to its finally being over.
And it will. Healing takes time, she reminds us. We want to rush it, she writes, or get back to normal. To forget and be happy again. So we need each other to be there for us through all the stages of grief: through numbness, anger, unremitting sorrow, and finally some serenity and acceptance.
This takes the ability and grace to listen, to take cues from silences, and to be willing to reflect back what we see and hear.
If you are having a hard time with the deaths in our midst, if you want to talk about how to talk about them, please let me know.
Rev. Marti Keller, Assistant Minister