As I advanced in years, my peers began catching up to me in terms of being initiated with grief, but my head start always seemed to give me an advantage at avoiding the really big mistakes we all make when others look to us for comfort. If I didn’t always know how to help, I had read Job enough times to know what gestures and sayings had the greatest capacity to make things worse. Catch up my peers eventually did, and I thought I was done with the role of experienced trailblazer, at least as far as matters non-professional were concerned.
But then the Internet happened, and I realized the role of a journalist mirrors that of a professor in one unexpected way: the people you instruct move on, endlessly, often to be replaced by those who need you to say what you have said already but which they are hearing for the first time.
So, in that vein, here are some “take them or leave them” suggestions for appropriate ways to respond to death (or people dying) in the public square. They are all, admittedly, based on personal experience and were learned the hard way.
First—and most importantly—it’s not about you. Avoid the temptation to turn someone else’s death or grief into a teaching moment. However noble the lesson—and there have been some good, important, and true ones in the wake of Robin Williams’s passing—using someone’s recent death to highlight it risks coming across as opportunistic and exploitative. I’m tempted to say that the reason it risks coming across that way is because it is those things.
Second, remind yourself that the first few tastes of grief can be overpowering. We should try to be charitable in our judgments towards those whose method of dealing with it involves being more expressive than we might be. Yes, I suspect that in a year or two or five people who aren’t actually narcissists or attention whores may look back on things they wrote about Robin Williams (or Philip Seymour Hoffman) and be chagrined at how much they treated him, even in death, as a means to an end. But if they don’t, if they truly are opportunists, then our calling them out only brings them the attention they crave and encourages them to act out again the next time somebody passes.
For the person who is dying or who has close rather than weak ties to the deceased, the clearest lessons I’ve learned are about what not to do. I don’t say I understand or that I know how they feel, because I don’t.
I try my best to let the grieving or the terminally ill define the relationship and choose the nature and amount of support they want from me. If a terminally ill person or family survivor wants to use that death to bring attention to an issue, I try to listen respectfully. If someone wants to seize the remains of the day, I try not to judge how they spend their last, precious moments.
For the survivor, I never pray for anything but comfort. For the sick, I never pray for anything but a miraculous recovery, not because I am confident that particular prayer will be answered but because I’ve learned that dishonest prayers are the only kind that are truly worthless.
And I never tell a dying or grieving person that I am praying for him unless he or she solicits that information. Our prayers don’t always have to be announced publicly to be effective, do they?