What do you say in tough circumstances?
by Bethany Wesley, staff writer
Photos courtesy Jessie Marianiello
A co-worker’s husband is publicly fired from his job.
A neighbor’s home is devastated in a fire.
A friend learns her child will face lifelong medical challenges.
A family member’s cancer battle leads to hospice care.
What do you say in these situations? What should you do?
There is no one easy answer. Local professionals advise your response should depend on a number of factors, such as the closeness of your relationship, whether the news is public knowledge and how much the individual is comfortable sharing.
“The best thing you can do is to listen and … offer support to that person,” said Dr. Jean Christensen with Great River Psychological Services. “Listen carefully to what they want, to what they are going through.”
Jessie Marianiello is unfortunately living through this from the other side. In November, Carl Bratlien — the man she planned to marry — tragically died in a car accident.
Theirs was a longtime friendship that grew into a romantic relationship, one from which they had discussed future goals and set plans.
“Life had hammered us into a perfect fit for each other,” she said.
In the wake of Carl’s death, Jessie received countless messages of condolences.
“I have a lot of people in my life and Carl had a lot of people in his life,” she said, “so not only did I have my friends and family but also his people, people I didn’t even know, that were connected to Carl. In some ways, it was overwhelming but it was such a blessing.”
Each of those messages was a comfort, she said. Facebook, particularly, was a great conduit for those connections, as people from all walks of Carl’s life reached out to Jessie, to share their memories and thoughts with his future wife, even if they themselves had never met her.
“Carl (had) this insane ability to keep up with friendships and stay in contact with people,” she said. “He was constantly calling and texting, staying in touch with (everyone). That was one of his gifts.”
As a result, her own circle has grown considerably.
“Everything has changed,” she said. “My faith deepened, my circle of friends widened. … I’ve surrounded myself with an environment where I can be emotional and open.”
“It really isn’t about what we say and do as much as it is about being present,” said the Rev. Mark Papke-Larson, who for more than 20 years served as the chaplain at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center and is now working with in advanced care planning, helping families discuss and decide end-of-life treatments. “When someone is experiencing grief, when someone is experiencing a loss, what that person needs most is support.”
Christensen, who has been practicing in Bemidji for more than 30 years, said the most appropriate responses will first consider several factors.
“It really does depend on the nature of the relationship,” she said. “It depends on the setting, if it’s public knowledge, if you’re colleagues or close friends, and it also depends a great deal on what part of the process they’re in.”
If a co-worker is going through a difficult time and you have habitually discussed personal matters before, she suggested that he may feel hurt if you don’t acknowledge his pain. But if it is a co-worker with whom you are not close, simply saying that you are sorry she is having a tough time is appropriate.
Yet, it’s hard to give any one piece of advice because each person mourns differently.
“When I am coming to see you, the first thing I am doing is to observe you, not saying much but overserving how you are reacting and then I respond to you based on how you are expressing those emotions,” said the Rev. Alain Ndagijimana, the new hospital chaplain. “If you are crying, I support you to continue to cry so you get that opportunity to really be you. I’m not coming to take you from where you are, I’m coming to help you accept where you are so that, from there, we can explore ways you can connect with the real you.”
Papke-Larson said grief is an ongoing process. For example, a woman who suffered a pregnancy loss could still be grieving that loss years later.
He cautioned against telling someone that you know how they are feeling (because you don’t), offering advice (because they don’t need to fixed, just supported) and against putting people into boxes or categories (such as assuming someone is in denial).
Rather, he said, the best thing is to simply speak from the heart. He said the words themselves are frequently forgotten, but what is remembered is how someone made you feel.
“What I’ve found to be true is that people respond to genuine concern,” he said.
Jessie’s porch became a gathering place for playing music and Carl joined in that. Life took them in different directions, but years later, she and Carl reconnected over a common love of travel and adventure.
“I’ve encountered more beauty than I have difficulties,” Jessie said, speaking to her experience in grief since Carl died in November.
She now has more friends, deeper relationships, a stronger faith.
“When people have a story they remember about somebody, like for me (about) Carl, if somebody has a story that they can share, I just drink it up,” she said.
She loves talking about him, hearing about him.
While, overwhelmingly, she said she felt supported and loved throughout the last few months, she said it was difficult when she’d run into people who did not acknowledge Carl’s death.
“The thing is, there is nothing anyone can say to make it better,” she said. “The worst feeling is to pretend like nothing’s changed.”
Most helpful have been those who offered specific avenues of help without being pushy about it. Jessie herself admitted it could be a difficult balance to find, but encouraged people to offer help in a sensitive manner. She also suggested you be prepared to just listen and perhaps commiserate, but to do so without offering advice.
“Just to know that you’re connected, that people care, that’s really the best thing that anybody can do, to help you feel that way,” she said.
This article was featured in the Spring 2015 issue of inMagazine.