Be Strong. Be There. Be Silent.

What to say when someone is mourning a loved one

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Molly McCarty last saw her son, John, alive after he climbed into the couple's four-door silver Honda Accord for a visit to Mesa with her late husband, John Sr. and their two children.

That was July 3, 2003.

Three days later, on the way back to the Rim Country, John Sr. veered into oncoming traffic, killing John Jr. and another driver, and seriously injuring Matthew and Jordan.

Thirteen-year-old John Jr. died on impact.

Unable to cope with the deaths caused by the accident, John, Sr. took his life in September of that same year. He was 36.

Months later, McCarty's father died of natural causes.

"Not only did I lose a son and my husband," McCarty said. "Then I lost my dad."

In an attempt to deal with the overwhelming loss, McCarty turned to those around her, only to find that many were uncomfortable with her grief. Many didn't know what to say and when they did say something, often it was inappropriate.

"What to say when someone loses a loved one" isn't exactly an etiquette point people are taught.

Mark Waldrop, funeral director of Messinger Payson Funeral Home, said all too often, well-meaning supporters inflict more damage with words than if they remained silent.

"Sometimes it's better not to say anything," Waldrop said.

"I think people feel uncomfortable because they don't know what to say. They want to help and they want to bring the person back."

McCarty said callous comments and thoughtless actions caused the most pain for her and the children, and it began at the hospital.

"The whole bedside manner was terrible," McCarty said.

"Where's my oldest son?" she asked the staff.

"He's dead," the doctor answered.

Attendants brought her into a cold room, to the blood-stained body of her son.

"They just left him lying on the table," she said. "No preparation. No warning. I saw blood under his nails. He had tubes hanging out of him."

As soon as her grieving process began, so too did the strangely brash remarks.

"Oh, you lost a son? How can you sleep?"

"People would say, ‘I know you're hurting.' Of course I am," she said. "People I didn't even know would say, ‘I'm so sorry, what happened?' I'd tell them (matter of factly) and they'd say, ‘You're so cold.'

"People were pretty much morbidly curious. It's just the rumor mill. It's people wanting to know the details."

Inquiring minds asked about the appearance of her dead husband and how he committed suicide. They pushed religion on her and gave bereavement advice.

One woman brought her young children a coloring book filled with people in coffins and other death-related themes.

"They don't need to color in pictures of caskets," McCarty added. "People would butt in."

Shortly after her husband's death, as she organized his belongings and paperwork to close his affairs, neighbors accused her of gold-digging.

"‘His body's not even cold yet,' they said. Are you cleaning out his bank accounts, too?'"

Worst of all, she said, her in-laws and sisters offered antagonism and little support, which is a common way of coping with loss -- to blame the person closest to the deceased.

Only a handful of loved ones, especially her mother, stood by.

"My mom was the strongest," McCarty said. "She is everything to me and she made it OK."

Diane Waldrop works with her husband at Messinger Payson Funeral Home. Grief sometimes begets family conflicts, arguments and fighting, she said.

"You have people who are angry," she said. "People tend to be in denial. Traumatic deaths are really hard. There's nothing you can say to bring them back. People deal with it in different ways."

Waldrop also said to avoid airing dirty laundry, talking bad about the deceased and refraining from comments such as, "He/She looks almost alive," during the viewing.

McCarty's advice to friends of someone who is mourning is simple: Be there. Be strong. Be silent.

McCarty found the most comfort that kind of silent support.

"Don't say you're sorry," she said. "Just be there. I have an ache inside that will never go away. I still hurt as much as the day I found out."

How to be supportive

  • Don't minimize someone's loss.
  • Take food to the home of the bereaved.
  • Volunteer: Pick mourners up from the airport, answer the phone or clean the house.
  • Send flowers or make a donation.
  • To take the burden off loved ones, prepare for your own death or the imminent death of a terminal patient.
  • Write down your final wishes and meet with a funeral director.

For more information or to schedule an appointment to discuss your final wishes, call Messinger Payson Funeral Home. The service is available without charge or obligation.

Editor's note: For full disclosure, Molly McCarty is an employee of the Payson Roundup.

-- To reach Felicia Megdal call (928) 474-5251 ext. 116 or e-mail fmegdal@payson.com.

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