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Illness & Death
Illness & Death

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“Kaplan has written a book that should be a staple of every medical school’s curriculum.  It’s a must for student doctors, and those advanced in their training. Not only does Kaplan include examples of how and what to say (and perhaps more importantly, what NOT to say), but practical tips on what to DO. ‘Tips’ in bold, scattered throughout each section, offer quick, practical suggestions when the reader is pressed for time.”

Barbara M. Mackie, MD, Clinical Assistant Professor at VCU School of Medicine and Georgetown University School of Medicine

What To Say
What can you say to the bereaved?
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It’s not easy comforting the bereaved. What can you possibly say to someone feeling so much pain? And yet it is important that you speak to the bereaved at any funeral ritual or reception following a service.

Sometimes it’s not just what you say but how you say it. “I’m sorry for your loss” is a very common phrase when approaching the bereaved. There is nothing wrong with this statement but how you say it can be meaningful or meaningless.

Last week I attended a funeral and the reception back at the house. A colleague of the bereaved spouse approached his adult daughter. He extended his hand and said “I’m sorry for your loss.” She had no idea who he was and it was awkward. It would have been more meaningful had he introduced himself and said something like, “I’m Peter Smith and I worked with your dad. I never met your mom but heard wonderful things about her. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Touch can be comforting when consoling the bereaved but respect boundaries. If you know someone is not a hugger, give a warm touch to the arm or hand while expressing your sympathy. If it’s okay, give a hug and share your sadness at their loss.

There is nothing magic you can say to alleviate the pain of loss but being present and expressing sincere condolences does provide solace.

photo/Georgena Eggleston

It’s so important to keep in touch
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I’m sitting at my desk, sorting through papers when I see the name of a friend at the top of a list. My friend had surgery and she’s been undergoing chemotherapy for the past two months. I periodically send a card or call just to say hello but I realize this morning that it’s been a few weeks since I’ve checked in.

I made the call and had a nice chat. I learned that my friend is very uncomfortable and is really just whiling away the days with little energy to pursue her normal routine. That’s where the cards and calls help. She mentioned she gets a card now and then and she appreciates that someone has taken the time to let her know they’re thinking of her. I tell myself to stop feeling guilty and make a plan to send a card next week.

Cards and notes are easy to send and you don’t have to worry about disturbing someone as you may do with a phone call. Emails are great for keeping in touch but there is something special about receiving a card or note in the mail.

Don’t spend too much time worrying about what to say. A simple “I wanted to let you know that I’m thinking of you” goes a long way in making someone feel cared for. You can add “Book club or bridge isn’t the same without you” or “I miss crossing paths on my morning walks and look forward to seeing you soon.”  Your thoughtfulness will go a long way in brightening someone’s day.

Is it a trite expression or helpful?
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When you see a friend, community member, or neighbor who’s just experienced a loss, what do you do? Do you fear you’ll say the wrong thing and walk in another direction, hoping they didn’t see you? Or, do you approach them? If so, what do you say?

If you avoid the bereaved for fear you’ll say the wrong thing, you risk hurting them. Loss is very isolating and if you deliberately keep your distance, you’ll isolate the bereaved even more.

It’s important to acknowledge the loss and a simple greeting is all that’s required. It could be a sincere, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” or, “I was terribly sorry to hear the news about your mom.”  

Some people may think these expressions trite but in truth, you are terribly sorry for their loss. These expressions work because they’re sincere and simple. It’s when you try to elaborate with something of more substance that you often get into trouble and say the wrong thing.  

Recently, a friend encountered a truly awful loss. When I first saw her, “I’m so sorry for your loss” seemed inadequate. Instead, I hugged her close and said, “You’re in my heart.” As she hugged me back, I knew it had been the right thing to say. In the weeks and months ahead, there will be plenty of time to say more.


Actions speak louder than words
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Death and loss are unlike any experience; no matter how often we deal with them, we don’t necessarily get better at it. It never becomes easier or more comfortable to offer condolences or extend support to someone dealing with loss.

And no matter the circumstances, it’s crucial to communicate, despite your comfort level. Death and any loss are very isolating and staying away compounds the loss.

But what should you do when you’re truly at a loss for words? What do you say?

I’ve been in this predicament myself. At a really difficult time in my life I saw a neighbor. She gave me a hug and said, “This must be such a difficult week. I don’t know what to say.” But she said it all; she validated what was happening in my life, let me know she cared by approaching and hugging me, and was honest in her feelings. And what she said and did was right on target.

I encourage everyone to reach out to someone facing a death, illness, or difficult times so individuals don’t face even more isolation. It’s okay to let someone know, “I don’t know what to say.” In reaching out, your actions speak volumes. You’re saying, “I know this is a difficult time and I care.” And that says a lot.

What to Say to a Grieving Spouse
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A colleague, Joan Price, lost her beloved husband, Robert. Many folks she encountered found it hard to say the right thing. Too often she was asked, “How are you doing?" Joan wondered, “What was I supposed to answer? The truth was ‘Horrible, of course!’ but I restrained myself."

I asked Joan to share what she wished folks had said so we could learn how to better communicate with a grieving spouse. Joan reminded me that we each grieve differently and statements that she liked might not work as well with others. These are her heartfelt suggestions.

1. “Tell me about him.”
With people who didn’t know him or barely knew him, this is a wonderful opening for me to talk about him.

2. “I miss him, too.”
From people who did know him, this is the perfect thing to say.

3. “Here’s what I loved about him” or “Here’s something special he did that I’ll always remember.”
How beautiful to add to my memories of him during this time.

Joan also advised that it is never too late to share thoughts or memories. Memories are what remain and they're truly appreciated.

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