Greeting a MournerMaria’s husband died several months ago. She was now in my office for her yearly check of her heart condition. They had been married sixty years and were both in their early 80’s when Frank died of a stroke. As we chatted, Maria naturally became very emotional.
What to say? Here are some possibilities: “You should be thankful for all the years you had together.” True enough, but what about now? How, exactly, could that statement be comforting to Maria on this day? After all, the couple was no longer together. This response just doesn’t work. Maybe, “He’s in a better place.” This presupposes a level of faith in Maria that I can’t rightly assume. And even if true, that hardly lessens Maria’s loneliness and grief. How about, “He’s not suffering any longer.” But Maria is. She is alone and forlorn.
From my own personal and painful experiences and from the countless patients I’ve tried to console, I can relate to you that for some of life’s experiences, there are no mitigating circumstances and few comforting words, try as we might to find them.
Maybe this is why, when visiting the house of a mourner, the Jewish tradition instructs us to say . . . nothing. We can certainly speak when and if the mourner does, and can take our cues from what the mourner says to us. But we are taught that our mere presence is comforting, and that there are no magic words. We don’t have to come up with empty explanations, platitudes, and trite statements. Maybe just a hug and, “I’m sorry for your loss” will suffice.
Which is exactly how I began this visit with Maria.
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Dr. Joel Roffman has spoken to many church, synagogue and support groups. His book, Coping with Adversity: Judaism’s response to illness and other life struggles is enjoyable, uplifting and informative. It is meant for people of all faiths and can be viewed at www.copingwithadversity.com. It is available at Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Amazon.com.