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Comforting Mourners- Clotted Cream and Jam May 13, 2006

Posted by makingyourdashcount in condolences, mourning, Spiritual Musings, Thoughts.

This is a reprint of an article I wrote to help give people guidance on how to respond to mourners. It was an emoptional response to the "She is in a better place" comment so many told us. Although many parents use faith to get them through tough times, remember that when a child dies parents feel sadly cheated. It is better to offer sincere condolence than to try and comfort what is uncomfortable.


Clotted Cream and Jam

"It was God's plan."
"She has gone to a better place."

Those two top the list as the most insensitive things said to us after our daughter, Sarah, died. Although I know that sincere people said them in sincerity, I am sure that they did not consider what those words convey, especially to mourning parents.

Let me begin by saying that I don't ascribe to the belief that there is one true way to express faith. In a room of ten people, I expect that each of the ten express their faith differently. I would even go as far as to say that ten people with the same religious label would express different beliefs, especially on the subject of death. I find it somewhat theocentric and elitist to assume that one person's beliefs are the only "true" path and that everyone else needs to agree with them or be wrong. I also find it a bit improbable that this is the case, considering how diverse world theologies are. When people express religious beliefs in condolence, they express that their belief system is "the" path to comfort without the consideration that there are other valid routes.

The first time someone told me that Sarah was in a better place, I unexpectedly snapped back, " The better place was her bedroom." Since then I have tempered my response to a more socially acceptable, "She is in a better place than if she had survived the extended CPR and whatever it was that ravaged her body." Imagining what life would have been like for my first born, given the circumstances, does assure me that yes, what happened, once it happened, probably was the best for her. But no, she is not in a better place than healthily with the family and friends who still love her.

To believe that she is now in a preferred place would be for me to accept that God, at the very least, let Sarah die. I do not believe in a God who micromanages our lives. I do not believe in a God who takes young people with bright futures from loving productive homes or who crashes airplanes or prearranges murder. I do not believe in a God who would inflict this kind of pain on parents in any kind of "grand plan." Those beliefs would guarantee my anger with God. However, anger against God is a one sided losing proposition only guaranteeing very expensive therapy bills.

My belief, instead, includes a God who cried when we lost Sarah. My God was in the amazing outpouring of support we have received since losing our daughter. My God had nothing to do with the bacterium, virus or toxin that found her. My God helps give me the strength to heal from the most profound wound of my life.

So is she in a better place?

If there is a heaven after life on earth, this is what I would like to believe. As our souls find heaven, we are reunited with those of our loved ones. We enjoy scones, clotted cream and jam everyday at two and no matter how many scones we consume, we look great in bathing suits. In my ideal heaven, everyone gets along and no matter what his or her religious background is, we all see eye to eye on everything; there are no political disagreements. My ideal heaven also includes that traditional view where people, who have already died, watch over loved ones from above. The fact I think this is fantasy doesn't invalidate that view of heaven for me, however. There are times when that promise brings me closer to the people I have lost and lets me feel comforted through their presence. Although I would love to believe that there is this place where our souls exist eternally, what I want to believe (especially as a mourning parent) is different from what I actually believe.

When people tell me, "She is in a better place," does that assume that a soul in heaven is in a more appropriate place than on earth? This confuses me. One person who told me this as an expression of comfort is a new parent. If the better place is not on earth, why, "in heaven's name" would you bring the souls of children to an earthly life? I don't pretend to understand the tenants of my own ascribed religion, let alone that of others, but in that I miss the logic.

To me the point of life is life, itself. It is our job on earth to find our passions and purpose in life as a way to benefit the world, in which we live. And heaven knows there is a lot of work to be done here. The point of life, in my opinion, is to improve our relationships, communities and God given earth: Tikkun Olam, perfecting the world. I do not believe that the point of doing good things on earth is to assure a palatable afterlife. But if that concept helps another live a purpose filled life, who am I to object? If a person believes that doing those things assures a place "in heaven," fine. Believe in whatever inspires you to work for the greater good.

My belief system includes the concept of a soul. The way we live touches others, as we live. How our lives influence others, imparts bits of our soul on them. I do not see a soul as a finite unit; we leave parts of our soul everywhere we have been throughout our lifetime. It never runs out. We leave pieces of ourselves in the way we live our lives. Stephen Schwartz's lyrics from the Broadway show "Wicked" convey this soulful synergy:

I've heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason, bringing something we must learn.
And we are led to those who help us most to grow if we let them, and we help them in return.
Well I don't know if I believe that's true, but I know I'm who I am today because I knew you.
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But because I knew you, I have been changed for good.

Some of us have abilities that allow us leave more of us than others and some can impart their souls long after they have died. For example, consider how artists, composers and statesmen affect others after them. Their souls continue to trail into other people's lives as their art, music and words inspire others. Souls are infinite and everlasting, as they affect others.

From the students who shared that they would not have passed this or that class without Sarah's help, or her fellow string players who have used her memory as an impetus to practice that little bit more, Sarah left her mark on those around her. She left her mark through the relationships she nurtured and on those, which she did not. Unknown to her, she even left her mark on people she never even met in the suddenness of her death. Through a scholarship her father and I developed, we hope to share her soul with generations of science students behind her.

When people die, it is natural to want to give loved ones comfort. It is natural to want to make meaning out of something that seems meaningless, at the time. But what is comforting for one is not the same thing that comforts another, even between people with similar religious labels. This is even more so in the case of a difficult or sudden death, or the death of a child. If one really wants to give comfort to mourners, the words are very simple, although difficult to say.

Just say, " I am so sorry."

© 2004 Betsey Krause


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