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Modern Manners + Etiquette: Talking About Death and Loss

Monday, June 13, 2011


A longtime friend phoned recently, his voice sounding strained. “What's going on with you?” I asked. I could tell that something was wrong. After a moment, he answered, “Michael is dead.” Michael was his only child. What followed was the most difficult conversation I may ever have had. How to respond? What is the etiquette when someone tells you the most terrible thing that could possibly happen to him—or anyone. My friend was a single father, Michael was the light of his parents' lives. As someone who often says the wrong thing, I struggled to find the right words as I listened to him talk about his son's accidental death, an autoerotic fatality.

There are no right words, no etiquette carved in stone. The death of a loved one is the most difficult of life experiences. You appreciate that he called to tell you personally about his son's death before you read about it or learned it from someone else. But it's hardly the time to say thank you. He was in extreme pain, straining from intense emotions, depression, anger, and guilt. Fumbling for words of comfort makes you feel awkward and helpless. You don't want to be intrusive by saying the wrong thing that might make the friend feel worse. While you can't take the pain of the loss away, you can be comforting and supportive by letting the person know that you care. Having someone to lean on can help them through the grieving process.

The important thing to remember is not to let your feelings of awkwardness prevent you from comforting someone who is grieving. More than ever, that friend needs your support. Nobody knows exactly what to say or what to do, but that's OK. You don't have to give answers or advice. Most importantly, be there. Your comfort and presence will help ease the pain needed for them to heal.

What to say

It's so incredibly hard to say the right thing. What can I do to help? When is the service? Their first response is to push you away. It is clearly a grief they aren't ready to share. So, you ask “Do you want to talk about it?” Of course they do, even if you're not part of the loss. I say, “How did it happen?” He says Michael had been playing a game and died from asphyxiation. Silence. Finally, I say, “When?” He answers. Again there's a deathly silence. I say, “Who found him?” His friend, he answers. For me, that was more than I could take. He wanted to talk but I didn't think I could hold up my end; when you're three hours away, conversation like this is hard to sustain over the phone. I wanted to take him in my arms and give him a long warm hug. I told him I would be in touch and asked him to call whenever he wanted to.

In retrospect, I should have acknowledged the situation by saying, “I'm sorry your son died.” However, I only said, “I'm sorry for your loss.” I know saying the word “died” out loud sounds a bit rough, but apparently just by using the word, the person feels you are open to talking about how he really feels. Some people use “passed,” as in passed away, but I've never been comfortable using that word. People feel better with specifics.

Express your concern for him or her by saying, “I'm sorry to hear that this happened to you.”

Be authentic in showing your interest in communicating by saying, “I'm not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”

Volunteer to help by saying, “Tell me what I can do for you.”

Be a compassionate listener, but don't assume you know how the bereaved person feels. Let him talk, offer comfort, but never, ever minimize the loss.

Follow up is extremely important because after all the roller coaster days of emotions, there will come a time when and family and friends have gone. That's when your friend needs a call.

What not to say to a grieving person

“He's in a better place now.”
“I know how you feel.”
“It's part of God's plan.”
“Look at what you have to be thankful for.”
“You should do this …"
“You will get over …"

Certainly when the cause of death is as tragic as erotic asphyxiation, Michael's father clearly was not going into the details with me over the phone. He only said that he had died from asphyxiation while playing a game. I told him I would be in touch. After doing a bit of research, I figured it had been important to my friend to clarify that Michael hadn't committed suicide but had died playing a dangerous game that led to his fatal accident. Author George D. Shuman in his book Last Breath (Simon & Schuster, 2007) describes the effect from the game: “When the brain is deprived of oxygen, it induces a lucid, semi-hallucinogenic state called hypoxia. Combined with orgasm, the rush is said to be no less powerful than cocaine, and highly addictive.”

Apparently, AEA practitioners are mostly males between the ages of 13-30, and death is in not uncommon. “Estimates of the mortality rate of autoerotic asphyxia range from 250 to 1000 deaths a year in the United States,” according to J.L. Uva in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, “Review: Autoerotic asphyxiation in the United States (1995). However, apparently many more of these accidental deaths are never reported, says Martin Down, in “The Highest Price for Pleasure,” featured by WebMD, “In cases involving teenagers at home, families may disturb the scene by 'sanitizing' it, removing evidence of paraphilic activity. This can have the consequences of making the death appear to be a deliberate suicide, rather than an accident.” It has been estimated that approximately 30% of male teen suicides were actually autoerotic asphyxia.

In part, etiquette evolves in our daily lives when we find ourselves grappling over how to comfort our friends. Take the friend who has just been given three months to live. Is there a harder conversation? In short time, I will find a way to acknowledge his condition and listen to him talk about it, and eventually attempt to comfort his widow and family when the time comes. This is all part of the etiquette of friendship.

Like me, most people say they simply have no idea what to say. Seemingly, the friends who are the most helpful, did simple things. They cooked, took food to the family. They listened. A word of caution though, many people think it is helpful to talk about eternity, religion, or philosophy, thinking they are being supportive, but don't be the one to start that conversation. One mourning mother said, “Don't start with conversations that begin with 'In time you will get over it, or In time it will be less painful, or In time you will forget, because it is simply not true. Grief is not pain to get over.”

Counterintuitively, in most cases people want to remember every moment. Those who have lost a loved one want to talk about him/her whenever they find a sympathetic listener. “The worst thing,” according to a friend that recently lost her daughter to cancer, “is the sort of person who thinks you don't want to talk about your loved one and thought that chatting about other things would be more helpful.”

What to say? Respond with sensitivity.

Didi Lorillard writes on all matters of relationships and manners as a way of understand evolving etiquette. Ask Didi a question on NewportManners.com or find her on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, after reading previous GoLocalProv columns listed below.


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