Words Help, Except When They Don’t

Books all around. (I like books!)

Books all around. (I like books!)

Books about dying, death, and grief surround me in my office. There are additional like-minded books in digital form on my tablet.

Do any of them truly help me understand the grief I’ve experienced in my life, or help those I try to support as they grieve a loved one’s death?

And what about the workshops, seminars, and webinars I’ve attended? Helpful? Not helpful?

The resources I’ve casually thumbed through or read and re-read, and the experts who have shared their wisdom in person or online, have added to my knowledge. And, given my love of books, and that I like to keep growing as a professional, I’ll probably buy the next well-reviewed memoir about grief or register for a webinar touting unique research about hospice care.

I love learning! Books are my friends! Workshops can provide new knowledge!

However . . .

Recently I spent time with someone who has dealt with a terrible tragedy. I won’t reveal what she experienced, and who died in her family, but this person is struggling with an event that is unbearably difficult. You would not want to be her. And if you’ve ever had a similar traumatizing event, then you might begin to fathom how deep emotional wounds can change . . . everything. Or maybe you wouldn’t understand, because tragedies can numb the ability to empathize with others for a long, long time.

This gentle, hurting person and I talked about books.

Like me, he (clever of me to change personal pronouns, eh?) has a personal library filled with books. There are probably lots of recently purchased self-help books and memoirs about loss and grief. Certainly his home shelves contain bestsellers on bereavement by renowned experts. Newly released books filled with chicken-soup-for-the-soul words of comfort and old books that are deemed “classics” are within reach for daily browsing.

“None of them help,” he told me.

“All of them say the same thing,” she told me.

Foolish me, I suggested another book, wondering if he’d heard of it.

“I’m reading that right now,” was her immediate reply.

This person was reading one of my favorite (such a foolish word) books on grieving: a slim work by Nicholas Wolterstorff entitled “Lament for a Son.” Written in 1987, it remains relevant.

“How do you like it?” I asked. (What a shallow question.)

The person hesitated. And then provided positive feedback and an appreciation for Wolterstorff’s talent to express powerful feelings in accessible words.

I didn’t have the courage to ask if reading “Lament” had really helped.

None of them help. All of them say the same.

That’s not true! Or is it true?

Grief is a firestorm that everyone, even the strongest, even the experts, confronts with a thimbleful of water. Maybe our faith is deep and wide, but when a child dies, a dagger of a question stabs our hearts: how can a loving God allow this? Maybe our extended family is nearby and supportive and always available with a warm casserole and kind words, but when a beloved mother dies—the one at the center of family life—every bite of food feels like cardboard and the kind words tumble like the last dried leaves from a tree in winter.

We read for answers. There are none.

We listen to an expert for hope. But still feel hopeless when the workshop ends.

In my own small way, I cast out sentences on this webpage. Have my words ever helped anyone who dreads what hospice represents or who is staggered by grief? At the hospice office, I attach a nametag to my shirt with: “Bereavement Support Specialist.” Specialist? Has my specialized/expertized/educatized designation made a difference for those longing for comfort in the worst—the absolute worst—time of their lives?

Maybe you will be a kind reader of these weekly ramblings and reassure me that my words have mattered. Maybe you’ve gotten a bereavement call from me, or you’ve been in a grief support group that I’ve led, and you’ll regale me with how my special expertise has mattered. And if you do, I would humbly receive and appreciate your compliments.

But I think of that lovely, wounded person. None of the books helped, she freely admitted; all the books said the same, he shared honestly. Really? That can’t be right! Some must have helped! Some must have shared distinctive, unique, and helpful viewpoints!

Or they didn’t.

In the little I know, I know how inadequate all responses and resources can be. A friend and mentor’s wife unexpectedly died years ago. She was alive on one fine morning, and then dead before the worst sunset of his life. I wrote him a note. Later he told me it was among the truly helpful “gifts” he’d received. Some friends had ignored him. Some told him her death was part of God’s plan or that God needed her and “brought her home.” Some told him it was her “time to die.” Some told him he’d feel better soon . . . just like they had when their great-grandmother died.

I just told him I didn’t know what to say and that he must hurt like hell. And I told him, though I don’t know this for sure (but believe it with my feeble, inadequate faith), that God must also be weeping. Really, what I tried to tell him was that there was nothing to say other than I wanted him to know I was thinking about him. Was that enough?

I am glad for all the books by the experts. I am glad for easy-access seminars and webinars. I am glad for memoirs where writers expose their scars and regrets and hopes so that the ones who buy the book know they too might survive the worst sunsets.

Everything that truly tries to help those who grieve can help. And it won’t.

I sat with that lovely, hurting person and I am still, at least within, crying because of the loss that was (and is) overwhelming. I wish I had the right words. I wish I were a specialist. I wish . . .

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. Larry,
    I have found your musings and articles and stories very helpful. A suggestion my pastor gave me recently fits well with your subject. He was encouraging me to just freely share and I suggested that it might not be the best time and he assured me that not all information was for now. Some of it is for later or for someone else but it’s important to be made available so that later, when it’s needed, I will be aware of it and maybe even know where to go if I need more. You are one of my go-to sources and even when I disagree with something, I find your subjects topical, interesting and well crafted. I am very grateful for you and your willingness to keep giving to those who are trying to make sense where there is none.

    • Cherrie . . . and I’m grateful for your response, and especially when you write, “when I disagree with something.” My hope, and I think most of those who write would share this feeling, is not to have everyone agree with everything, but to create and encourage various reactions in others.

      When I write about all-things-hospice, I know it’s a tough subject for many . . . but nearly every potential subject–our grief, a love one’s fears, literal life and death decisions, odd medical words, and so much more–will impact each of us at some point.

  2. Your words and thoughts are helpful Larry. I sit here reading with tears in my eyes. I buried my brother two weeks ago. He fought a hard battle with cancer, as did my other brother and both parents. I’m feeling somewhat of an orphan being the only one left of my family of five. I wouldn’t want under the circumstances for him to still be here on earth, for he was in pain. I am reminded how much I hurt when I did funerals at the church, that after a few years, you start burying your friends. I was told by some that a pastor never cries at a funeral, and others say, that tears can be a form of grief shown outwardly to let the family know you cared. Some services are easier to do than others, and usually my tears fell during a prayer, so not sure if anyone noticed or not. I had a friend tell me at my brother’s funeral that they came to my home to see me, got out of their vehicle started toward the house, then turned around and left because he didn’t know what to say. I told him that sometimes there are no words. Sometimes saying “I don’t know what to say, but I care.” Or just a hug is sometimes words enough. We are all different. You are a special person working with hospice, not everyone could do that. I appreciate your words, and perhaps it is well and good, that I did not find this blog until today, when I could deal with feelings better than I have in the past couple of weeks. Your words are always helpful, sometimes like this instance, very timely. Thank you for sharing yourself with all of us.

    • Oh, Nancy, so sorry to learn about your brother’s death.

      I think I have cried at funerals that I have led as a pastor . . . but not many. After all, pastors have to be available for the families, above the emotional roller coaster of tears, blah-blah-blah.

      I think I have paid a price over the years for trying to keep my emotions “in check.” Yes, as a pastor I do want to focus more on the other person’s needs than mine, but that frame of mind/heart comes with a cost. If we keep tucking away our emotions, do we become more successful at being “stoic” or “distant” than being true to our real reactions?

      I wonder what other pastors (and those they serve) think about this?

  3. Wow, my brother-in-law has cancer. I want to share all sorts of books. My mother-in-law has multiple health issues, books again come out. My parents aren’t any younger. Books. I fell and sprained body parts.

    Books all say the same things. They help and they don’t. I needed to read this today. Glad your articles are out here for me to read.

    I will share this one with my sister. I care. I can’t fix her husband. I can let her know I care.

    • You are welcome, Deb. I suspect, some of the time, the books given to others to help them are not as important as us just being there trying to do something. Yes, we give a book . . . but we are really trying to give our self, our kindnesses, our hopes, to those we love. Gifts come in many forms.

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