Maybe we, the bereaved, have to be the teachers

I read an account of a grieving couple whose two children were killed in a car crash. The couple survived but the children died. Their car was hit by a drunken driver. ("What losing two children taught me," Colin Campbell, The Atlantic, 3-1-23).

What they learned was that, in their grief, they needed to teach their colleagues and friends how to console them! This situation seems all backward.

When there is the death of a beloved, we usually count on others for some support and consolation. But what do we do when they have no idea how to comfort us in any really helpful way? Here's the gist of what they learned.

After the accident their many friends came with casseroles and kind words meant to console. The most common phrase was: "There are no words." The first point made in the article is to never say this to the grieving. (Please stick with me, I'll explain).

The other lesson the writer learned was that most people completely avoided saying or even making one mention of his son and daughter's names. Names they were longing to hear.

When this father and his grieving wife went back to work, all this was a big challenge for them. People were walking on eggshells. In anticipation of more "no words" and avoidance problems, this bereaved couple took it on themselves to teach their colleagues how to console them in a useful way. It has two main components for them:

One is that actually there are words. What was useful for them was for friends to tell these grieving parents stories and memories of the children, or talk about the fine people they were. Such stories helped them.

The other part is they assured friends that it's OK to say the names of the children who died. They needed to hear their names, and talk about them themselves. Otherwise it was like the children just disappeared, totally gone, even the memories. They had to let friends know it's OK and positive to use the names.

Another point is that the couple found they had to demonstrate by their own actions they could still do their jobs, even though this tragedy had happened. That seems all backward, too, because they were experienced and successful professionals in their jobs. But it was needed to help their colleagues treat them normally.

Now here is an important aspect of all this: The above is what worked for this couple. But it's also important to know that not all people take this same approach.

Some people are hurt and even offended it you try to talk about their loved one who died. One example is that a woman I know, whose teenage daughter had died, was very, very offended and upset when, at dinner, an old friend told a sweet story about her daughter. She got up and ran away from the table. Another example: a dear relative who can't bear to hear words about a beloved brother who died. These are just examples, but are clear reminders that grief reactions are very personal, varied and different for each individual.

The point is: Perhaps it is indeed necessary for the bereaved to take an active role in helping those around them, by gently teaching them what to say or not say. But taking the initiative to help steer those around us to the right approach for us seems like a good idea, a step forward.

• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow has a doctorate in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College and is a retired Motorola executive. Contact her at or see her blog See previous columns at

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