Friday, November 13, 2015

What Not to Say: < awkward silence >

A.Hanson, Boulder, 2010
Today's phrase in the "What Not to Say" series is not saying anything at all.  I think we have all had the experience of not wanting to say the wrong thing.  So perhaps we think that the best thing is not to say anything at all.

One of the most hurtful things that compounds bereavement is when one's friends drop off the face of the earth.  Sometimes we don't want to exacerbate someone's pain unintentionally, by saying something wrong.  Or perhaps we are afraid of unintentionally unleashing a tsunami of grief by asking the wrong question. Or perhaps we just can't deal with other people's tears or pain.

I know from my own personal experience and from the people that I accompany through their own grief, saying nothing at all is painful.  There is a fear that if you should ask about someone's recently deceased loved one, you will cause them increased pain.  The pain exists whether or not you mention their loved one and one of the few things that can be balm to a grieving soul is talking about the person they love and miss and have lost. Telling stories of your wife or father or sister or son is a way of preserving their memory for just a bit. Talking about the loved one that has been lost is a way to make sure that they are not forgotten, which is one of the greatest pains for those who are left behind.

It is not likely that a kind and compassionate conversation will unleash a torrent of grief that cannot be stopped.  People who are in grief are already living in a place that is overwhelming.  Your reaching out might be a life raft.

I have almost nonexistent patience for people who cannot stand to witness others' grief. This is one place where it is really difficult for me to summon compassion.  You do not have to say anything profound, because honestly, there are sometimes just not words.  But showing up and showing that you care goes a long way, so try to get over your discomfort about tears and runny noses and pain, and meet your friend in your humanity. Because one day you are going to need the support of your friends too.

Here are a few things to say instead of saying nothing…

"I just don't know what to say, but I am here for you."
"I cannot imagine what you are feeling, how much pain you are in, but I love you."
"I wish I knew what to say. Would it be helpful if I walked your dog/babysat your kids/brought you dinner?"

Thursday, November 12, 2015

What Not to Say: "They are not suffering anymore"

A.Hanson, Boulder, CO. 2009
This is one of the trite platitudes that I have mixed feelings about.  It is not factually incorrect, but it is still not one of the better things that you can say to a grieving family.  When someone dies, after a prolonged illness, it is indeed true, their suffering is over. But the suffering of those they leave behind continues and intensifies.

This saying in particular is well-intentioned and comes from a place of wanting to offer care, but it is still one of those "What not to say" phrases. Saying, "they are not suffering anymore" is an attempt to erase the very real (and raw) pain and suffering that precipitated this death.  Death is hard work.  We all hope for a peaceful death, but in reality, that is only one potential outcome among many possibilities. To say, "they are not suffering anymore" denies the intensity and the rawness of what just occurred.

Death does not occur in a vacuum.  When someone that we love dies, that has ripple effects on everyone around them. A family system is disrupted. A way of life is over. There is suddenly an absence instead of a presence. A whole life of stories and experiences is just gone. And the suffering for those who grieve is just beginning.

So please, don't say, "they are not suffering anymore" when you mean "I cannot imagine how painful these last weeks have been while you watched your loved one slip away."

Say instead….

"I see your pain."
"I am willing to listen."
"Tell me about what hurts."
"Do you want to talk about it?"

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What not to say: "You can have other children"

A. Hanson Denver, 2014. Blue Christmas. 
Today's post in the series, What Not to Say is particularly heartbreaking.  I have encountered well-meaning people saying "You can have other children" to those who have recently experienced a miscarriage or to those parents who lost a child or children just before birth, during birth, or in infancy.

It is so heartbreaking because in saying this to grieving parents, you have completely ignored the reality of an already-loved and cherished child who is very real and a part of this world.

One of the most heartbreaking spaces where I find myself as a chaplain is the birthing room with parents whose child died in the womb, during birth, or shortly thereafter.  It is a liminal space in which life and death are so intricately intertwined, that it is impossible to distinguish one from other. The crushing reality of not leaving the hospital with a newborn is suspended for a short time. Parents will hold and kiss and snuggle their baby and say the things they need to say.  As hospital staff, we do our best to create memories with footprints and handprints and locks of hair. This space of honoring all the lost possibilities and potential of this child, THIS child, is so very necessary.

Saying, "You can have other children" ignores the child who has died. But it is also cruel because there is no guarantee that there will be other children.  Conception may have been difficult, there may have been complications that make future pregnancies difficult or impossible, or perhaps the grieving parents just cannot bear the pain of infant loss again.

The most painful thing is to pretend as if the child never existed, that a miscarriage or other infant loss is merely something to get over.  To be so scared and uncomfortable with someone else's pain that we cannot even bear to talk with them.  Please never say, "You can have other children" because those potential future children are not what we are talking about now.  We are talking about the beloved one who has been lost.

Try saying this instead…

I am here for you in whatever way is helpful.
I would like to hear your baby's story, if you want to tell me more, I am willing to listen.
I love you.

Or the ever helpful,
Here is a casserole.  Please bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Sabbath Coffee Tour: J & S Bean Factory, St Paul, Randolph Street

Today's stop on the Sabbath Coffee Tour is J & S Bean Factory in St Paul.  This is one of my long-standing favorite roasters in the Twin Cities.  My friend Jodi introduced me to their delicious coffee a few years ago.  The Bean Factory roasts their coffee on site, just on the other side of a window, where you can watch what they are up to, as well as come home smelling like coffee. They roast to order and provide beans for retail and wholesale purchase.

Each day they have two roasts and one decaf roast as the coffee of the day, and they can make a cup of just about anything for you at their coffee bar. They have 30 different roasts!  I had the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, an organic medium roast with a bright flavor. I put a little milk into it, no sweetener necessary.

There are pastries and other small snacks available. There is free wifi, but not that many outlets.  There are about a dozen tables and chairs, but it is clear that the Bean Factory is devoted to roasting beans, not necessarily providing a quiet work space, which is great.  I love that this place is an independent roaster who does all their roasting on site. They also provide space for local artists and space for community gathering.

The J & S Bean Factory is located on a mostly quiet residential street, with street parking.  It is a great place for enjoying great coffee.  The Bean Factory is part of my regular rotation of coffee shops.

What not to say: "This is God's will"

I put a picture of my bobble-head Jesus reading a Greek Bible as the graphic for this post, because today's post in the series "What Not to Say" is just as ridiculous.

"This is God's will" is another attempt at compassion gone horribly wrong.  Along with "God needed another angel", these trite phrases are an attempt to explain the unexplainable, to make sense of something senseless, and to apply reason to something that is completely unreasonable.

Theologically speaking, we cannot, in any way ascertain God's will, whoever or whatever that god might be. People who might self-identify as "Bible believing"Christians will tell you that reading the Bible will help you ascertain God's will, but this is simply not true.  Because the Bible is a composite document, there is not one cohesive picture of God or of God's will.  Furthermore, there is not a way to provide an answer in advance for every single contingency that might arise. The best thing that the Bible has for us to figure out God's will is a very rough algorithm.  We hear over and over again about justice and compassion and care for others as being God's will, so let's go with that.

Which is why this particular platitude is so very asinine. Because telling people that their loved one's suffering or death is "God's will" is just about the opposite of justice and compassion and care for others. Like most of these sayings, this one probably starts from a place of desiring to offer compassion, but the best intentions get lost in creating an image of a God who plucks people out of families and lives at will.

I have witnessed deaths of all sorts, those from traumas and cancer and violence as well as old age, and NO DEATH is God's will.  Death is a biological inevitability, it happens to all of us, and trying to blame a particularly tragic death on God's will just does not make sense.  It is God's will that we would love one another.

So therefore, what to say?  How about…

I love you
I care about you
I am sorry
Can I bring you dinner?
Can I watch your kids for you?
Can I walk your dog for you?