The Facts of Death

Tiffany, a bright 26-year-old graduate student, was pulled out of class and told to call home. As gently as possible, an uncle told her that her father had a heart attack and died suddenly. Tiffany, in some confusion, immediately left for home.

When she returned to school a week after the funeral, Tiffany walked into the graduate lounge and approached several of her friends. Obviously she was still grieving but knew that school would be more difficult if she avoided going. Feeling anxious, the other students greeted her and quickly drifted out. They felt uncomfortable bringing up the death of her father. They just didn’t know what to say.

Her peers had simply never learned what is appropriate, and they were afraid that bringing up the topic of death could trigger an emotional breakdown. Tiffany was sensitive enough to realize that death made them uncomfortable and she slowly resumed her relationships with fellow students. One friend, Pam, did say, “I’m sorry to hear about your father. What exactly happened?” Tiffany wanted a friendly ear and they talked about her father’s death, how her mother handled it and the grief and confusion her family was experiencing. As a result, Tiffany felt closer to Pam and comforted by her support.

Why did the others avoid talking about it? Death is ubiquitous, inevitable and final, but it begins a far-reaching series of changes for survivors. Given its impact, thinking about death is threatening to most people and we avoid the topic because we often don’t know how to approach it.

What should Tiffany’s friends say? Clearly they should offer condolences and recognize that they know about the death. They should have gone up to her and said something like, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Avoiding the subject could make a person uncomfortable. Then, depending on the closeness of the relationship, they should, like Pam, get Tiffany alone and inquire about how she is doing. Some people simply do not want to talk about it, while others need to talk about it. And some want to talk about it to certain people and not others. Still, it is useful to provide an opportunity. If the bereaved doesn’t want to talk about it, fine. S/he will give a perfunctory answer, “I’m doing ok. Thanks,” and may change the topic. Follow that lead.

Others, like Tiffany, want an opportunity to discuss a death with a sympathetic and supportive confidant. They need to share their grief. Often, the people who are supportive have had similar experiences, so the dialogue is mutually helpful.

Most older people have been exposed to death and know its reality. My friend’s son committed suicide. Afterward, he found that several people he knew had also lost children. They reached out to him and they bonded. On the other hand, many younger people have limited exposure, so they avoid the dreadful topic.

Simply attending a funeral offers support to family members at a time when it is needed. With the inevitable exposure to death, we develop some acceptance. Being able to talk about the facts of death is helpful to many grieving people. Even if we’re awkward, our efforts of support are much appreciated.