Confronting the death of a friend or loved one can be difficult


A Wave reader in Rehoboth Beach writes:

Dear Dr. Hurd,

Why do people sometimes back away from friends who are very sick or who are mourning the death of a loved one? My husband recently got a terminal illness and passed away suddenly. During his illness, some of his friends who used to call regularly just sort of’disappeared. When I asked them at the funeral why they didn’t call more often during his time of need, I got stammering answers from: ‘I didn’t want to bother you during this terrible time’ to ‘Well, I just didn’t know what to say” and everything in between. I have to admit even I have felt uncomfortable about calling somebody who is dying, or even his or her wife or husband, so I kind of understand. But why does this happen?


Dear Wave reader:

Nobody who’s healthy and reasonably happy feels comfortable thinking about death and dying. But it’s important to face the fact that this discomfort is normal. The problem begins when the friends or family of a dying person won’t admit this honest emotion to themselves. They repress or ignore it, because they’re ashamed to think that they have it—yet they end up acting on it anyway through procrastination, denial and excuse making.

My advice to people is that they simply face the stark and obvious reality that death is awful. By acknowledging the discomfort and facing it, they can then forge ahead and confront the situation head-on.

But first, a word of caution: When dealing with the terminal illness of a close friend or family member, DON’T try to motivate yourself by thinking: ‘It’s selfish to avoid this situation. I should be more charitable and giving.’ This isn’t effective, and it’s an insult to your dying friend. He or she is probably not looking to be the recipient of your charity. It’s perfectly valid to consider his or her well being, but you have to consider yourself as well. If you ignore your own feelings, you’ll end up avoiding the situation, or, at best, sucking it up enough to be only minimal comfort to the person who’s dying. Your support and attention will come across as fawning and insincere.

Before being hard on yourself by confronting things head-on, you must first be easier on yourself. Don’t worry about what to say. Just ‘being there’ shows you care. Don’t feel that you must have all the answers. Just be a good listener.

I don’t question the sincerity of most people who tell the bereaved, ‘I didn’t know what to say.’ Chances are, they didn’t. But they’re operating from two flawed assumptions: first, that they were expected to ‘say’ something that would somehow make things all better, and, second, that all people automatically want to be left alone when they have experienced a horrendous loss. Wrong on both counts.

It’s true that not everybody experiences grief and loss the same way. Some people will want to be left alone, at least part of the time. Death of a husband, wife, child or a close friend feels like a catastrophe. The world as you know it has ended, forever. But during times like these, it’s also human nature to want stability, reassurance and continuity. This is what contacting people who are dealing with illness accomplishes. And it means a lot. The same applies to the person who’s actually dying. If you underrate the value of just ‘being there,’ then you’re going to end up inadvertently disappointing or hurting the people you probably thought you were helping by ‘leaving them alone.’ You’re also going to end up with a lot of unnecessary feelings of guilt and regret, not only at the gravesite, but afterwards.

I recently knew of someone dealing with the terminal illness of her husband. When talking to their friends, she advised: ‘Call him and talk to him. Don’t worry about what to say. The purpose of calling him is to allow him to have something else to think about aside from doctors, hospitals, and questionable treatments. He wants to know that something else is going on in the world other than his illness.’ How insightful! Don’t assume the dying person wants to talk about his problems. If he does, you have to be ready for it, but maybe he’s just as concerned with forgetting about it for a while. Friends who are physically well provide a great deal of support, simply by being there—and being well.

And then there’s the feeling that, ‘I should leave them alone during their time of sorrow.’ Some of us become intimidated by people going through loss. We begin to think of people (who were, just yesterday, our everyday friends) as some kind of elusive celebrities—just because somebody died. ‘Leaving them alone’ is not a rationalization for not being there.

At the same time, don’t try to motivate yourself by thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be selfish.’ It’s OK to think of your own feelings and fears! Self-preservation is, indeed, the core human motivation, and there is true self-preservation in maintaining the friendships and contacts that are important to you—even through the uncertainty of sickness and the inevitability of death. Don’t let procrastination and indecision suddenly turn into regret. Forever is a very, very long time.