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15 Jan

“How did you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Start the fire?”

There is a scene in the recently released Series of Unfortunate Events that played on me like a swift blow to the stomach.  The Baudelaire asoue_101_unit_7996_r_cropchildren, recently orphaned, are taken to Mr. Poe’s (their parent’s banker) house and meet his family.  This family gives the banker 2 sons that the Baudelaires share a bedroom with overnight.  As the young orphans try to share a single bed between the three of them, one of the Poe offspring (I’m uncertain if it’s Albert or Edgar) asks, “How did you do it?” The Baudelaires sit up, “Do what?”  “Start the fire?”

Of course, in true Snicket fashion, there is just a tight shot on their faces, and that’s the scene.  Really the Series of Unfortunate Events is a series of how people don’t really know how to deal with others who are grieving.  And so they act in what they feel is a good or kind way, which ends up with some pretty dismaying consequences every time it happens.

Beyond this just being a misstep by preadolescent boys who are obsessed with fire, I think this also touches on our need to try and place blame on the cataclysmic event that our friends now face.  Somehow if we can press blame somewhere onto a cause, wouldn’t that then make all involved feel better?  Most of us who grieve aren’t asked if we started the fire that killed our parents, but here are some laying of blame phrases I’ve heard while actually grieving that people seem to think were appropriate to say to me or around me so that I could overhear them:

“Well, you know he was a bigger man, so a heart attack was likely.”  (Overheard)

“It must be so hard for you to watch someone not care for themself properly.”  (Said to my mother.  At the funeral.)

“Well, I’m sure you had an inkling because of how he lived.”  (Said to me.  At the funeral.)

“It’s to be expected, really.”  (Overheard no less than 4 times by myself.  At the funeral.)

A quick moment of truthiness here – my father, who passed away when I was 25, did not die of a heart attack.  He actually died of a burst aortic aneurysm.  So as people performed chest compressions on his already strong heart, (which was still beating, by the way, not sure how these folks thought performing CPR was a good idea) his strong heart pumped all of his blood into his body.  And thus he died.  His autopsy actually showed him to be in strong, hearty health, and it was his proximity from the hospital that signed his death warrant.  (Unlike Ron Jeremy, who suffered from the same situation and was able to have a life saving surgery performed. This, of course, illustrates a Universe who deems one sticks around and one dies in a seemingly strange fashion.)

But I’m not so sure that the truth or facts in this case would really assist in what is obviously a very mislead attempt to make myself and my grieving family feel better.  Framing my father’s death in a way that it made it his fault, and ours for not talking sense into him about his diet, was certainly not a healing balm for our grieving souls.

Sure, you might be curious about the fire, but should you really ask Violet, Klaus, and Sunny if they instrumented the fire that killed their parents? Or is this really where that term “morbid curiosity” found its foothold in our society?  Are we simply so curious about morbidity (A human condition really) that it matters more that our curiosity be satiated than those left behind to grieve be comforted?


“It is useless for me to describe to you how terrible Violet, Klaus and Sunny felt in the time that followed.  If you have ever lost somebody very important to you, then you already know how it feels; if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine.”


Isn’t it interesting, that sometimes when we are looking for the right thing to say to a grieving friend, the exact opposite happens?  We very literally say the worst possible thing that anybody could say to them.  Then we excuse ourselves saying, “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to say.”  (Then, weirdly, we look away and to the right.)  Take a look at that sentence for a moment.  Here, I’ll put by itself to help:

I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to say.

Please notice that when you say this phrase, it is not at all intended for the listener.  It is intended for yourself, to make you feel better for whatever it was you were led to say.  I think this is why we look away and to the right after saying it.  In hopes that we’ve said enough words to now avoid that this horrible thing is not at all happening right now.

Is it really so important that how you feel about someone passing that you feel the need to explain your lack of disregard for those who are directly affected by it?

Here are a few suggestions I have, based upon the people who “did it right” with their grieving friend or acquaintance:

  • Share a short story about why that person is special to you.  If  you are friends enough with the person to know that a humorous story that they might not have known will go over well, share it.  It’s okay to make your friends laugh when they are grieving.
  • If you are curious about how that person died, see if it is shared in the obituary or hinted toward in the “in lieu of flowers please donate to” portion of the obituary.  There is ABSOLUTELY ZERO NEED for you to bring this up to the bereaved.  Is it really so important for you to point out if a death is more tragic if it is self inflicted, or sudden, or from a long disease, or from a tragic accident?  No.  None of that matters.  If they offer details, that is appropriate, but otherwise keep your big damned mouth shut.
  • Actually, keep your big damned mouth shut really works best.  So you don’t know what to say because you know nothing you say will make it better?  Then don’t say anything.  I know for some of us who are good with words it’s super hard to sit in that moment and be quiet; but if my experience is universal, and I expect it might be, your silence will be long remembered.  (This year it will have been 14 years, and I still love my silent friends the most dearly.)
  • Be willing to be that person who just brings a semblance of normalcy to your grieving friend’s life.  Sometimes we want to take a shower, get dressed up, go to a concert and not even talk about what’s happening.  To remember that we are those who live on and that is the best memory of the person we lost.  Be that friend, the one who can go out for a drink and not talk about how it’s so sad what you’re going through.  (Which is, again, selfish, because you’re curious about that that feels like and you want to know.  This is not asked in the guise of any sort of healing for your friend.)
  • If you are, in fact, an acquaintance to the deceased, acknowledge that to the bereaved.  And do not feel like you are allowed somehow to claim this tragedy as your own sad story to tell. (That includes on social media, by the way.  Imagine if you had to hear YOUR parent died via a tagged Facebook post that just pops into your feed?  Again, this is not about you.  It just isn’t.)  Here are some good words.  “I didn’t know him well, but the short time I did makes me realize that your loss is very great, and I am sorry for that.”

I am a firm believer that it is how we continue on living that brings us healing and peace.  It is also a testimony to the memories of our loved ones how we live today.  But the point is they lived, and created amazing people around them who are incredibly clever, smart, or just good at biting like little Sunny.