The following column appeared originally in Ms. Engram's book "Mortal Matters: When A Loved One Dies," published by Andrews & McMeel.) A friend is dying. What do you say to him?
Someone else has lost a loved one. What can you tell her?
Sometimes people take offense at the very words their would-be comforters consider the most appropriate: "I know how you feel."
I know grieving people who have bitterly resented hearing those words, or sentiments like them. I also know people who have found that kind of message immensely comforting.
What's wrong with saying, "I know how you feel"? And why is it sometimes right? Grieving people give us some clues:
A 40-year-old man in St. Petersburg, Fla., writes to tell how it feels to be dying of a terminal disease. He describes what it was like to fight his way twice out of a near-coma. In one crisis he was partially paralyzed for five weeks, enduring pain that "went beyond painkillers."
"I'd like to give you some advice," he writes. "Never say you can imagine what it must have been like to someone who has experienced a near-death situation. You can't imagine it; you just can't!"
He's right. The pain, the fear, the humiliation of losing bodily control -- those feelings must be felt to be understood. We can't really imagine that pain. We can only offer our love and support to someone who has to go through it.
A woman in Los Angeles tells of the time she was returning home from her father's funeral in the Midwest. On a small commuter plane, she discovered to her dismay that she was seated next to a large, loquacious rancher -- just the type of person she was in no mood to talk to. She took the initiative and explained to him that her father had just died, hoping that the confession would earn her some solitude.
To her surprise, he gently replied: "Well, my mother died last year. And a few years ago I lost my 17-year-old son. So I know something of what you're going through."
That, she says, was probably one of the most comforting things she heard in the first weeks of her grief. They talked throughout the flight about grief and how long it lasts, about death and about life.
"If he had said, 'I know how you feel,' I would have been furious," she says. "Instead, he said, 'I know something of what you're going through.' Even though he had had more deaths to deal with than I had, he didn't presume to know what my grief felt like to me.
"And yet," she adds, "in the months since my dad died, a close friend who lost her father a couple of years ago has said, 'I know how you feel' dozens of times and it doesn't offend me. She knew my father and how I felt about him, and I knew her father and how she felt about him. I think that's the difference."
The lesson here is that there are no rigid rules about what to say to a dying or grieving person. But there are good guidelines about how to say it.
Don't presume to know something about a person that you can't really know. And remember that your willingness to listen can be more important than anything you say.
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.