A feature story by Charles A. Corr – Journeys bereavement newsletter, July 2023
When confronted by a bereaved person, many people say, “I don’t know what to do” or “I don’t know what to say.” Why is it so complicated to know what to do or say when you truly want to be helpful to a family member, friend, or other individual who has suffered a significant loss? Many ministers of religion, chaplains, parish visitors, hospice staff and volunteers, and ordinary people have been trained or simply have innate social skills to know what to do in such situations.
Recently, I found guidance about how to act in such situations in a very unlikely place, a novel about a former Marine sniper. Stephen Hunter has written several novels about a fictional character named Bob Lee Swagger. Typically, these novels focus on adventure, the understated heroism of the lead character, and the minutiae of the many details that are involved in the use and construction of firearms. Nevertheless, in one of Hunter’s most recent books, Game of Snipers: A Bob Lee Swagger Novel (2019), there is the following passage about Swagger and a mother whose Marine son had been killed in Baghdad.
They sat in silence on the porch for a bit. He didn’t know what he could say, because of course there is nothing that can be said. He knew enough of grief to know that only time eats it down, and
sometimes not even that, and death is the only ultimate release. So, it would be her show, and she seemed to need some time to gather. (p. 9)
One common effort in such situations-although it may not be viewed that way by the speaker-is to say something that minimizes the loss. For example, “Don’t forget, you have another son;’ or “Well, at least he didn’t suffer;’ or “Now he’s at peace:’ These attempts are typically not very helpful because they fail to address the depths of the loss the bereaved person is experiencing. Sometimes, they simply imply that the bereaved person should not be so upset.·
Another well-meaning desire in situations like this is to try to “fix” things. But the fact that a beloved person has died is not fixable. Bereaved persons need in their own time to come to terms with their losses and learn to live in healthy ways in their aftermath.
Hunter knows these things and thus depicted Bob Lee Swagger as respectful of this bereaved mother’s need to find her own path on her personal journey of grief. Still, it would be wrong to think that Bob Lee did nothing: he sat with this woman in silence, offering her his presence, his concern, and his support. Like many effective chaplains and hospice bereavement staffers, Bob Lee made clear that he cared about this woman and her situation, but he let her lead and did not attempt to take over her journey. This is a good example for all would-be helpers, and it is one that bereaved individuals can recommend to those who wish to know what to say or do to help.
- Charles A. Corr, PhD, formerly chaired the International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement and is recipient of the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Death Education and Counseling.