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After The Funeral, Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid

My uncle passed away some years ago from cancer. It was sudden and very quick — no indication that he’d been feeling ill, and then three months from his diagnosis to his passing.

After the funeral, a woman who had at that time been a neighbor of my aunt and uncle for two, maybe three, years and hadn’t known them prior to that, said to my aunt that she’d always known there was something wrong with my uncle, she could tell he was ill ever since she met him. Understandably, my poor aunt was dreadfully upset, thinking she’d failed my uncle in some way by not seeing he was ill.

Fortunately, one of my cousins pointed out to my aunt that my uncle had a cataract operation about a month before the cancer was diagnosed, in preparation for which he’d had a complete medical workup, including full blood tests, and that had there been any indications of cancer at that time, they would have shown during the blood tests. I don’t know if signs of cancer would have been tested for or if my cousin was making it up as he went along to reassure his mother, but either way, at least it stopped her feeling guilty for the rest of her life that she’d somehow killed her husband by careless inattention.

Who says something like that at a funeral? Even if the neighbor had been right, which I doubt given that she was no medic, what was the point in saying it? What would it have achieved at that point? Why would she have wanted my dear, sweet, loving aunt to live with the crippling guilt that would have caused? People, please, when approaching mourners, route your words via your brain before allowing them to fall out your mouth. Think twice before saying anything, and if you’re nervous and don’t know what to say, then say nothing more than you’re sorry for their loss, and move away. It’s better to say something formulaic — or even nothing at all — than to cause such pain. 0731-18

{ 25 comments }
{ 25 comments… add one }
  • at work August 13, 2018, 6:06 am

    Once again we see how important it is for the grieving to have friends and relatives very close. You should have many someones ready to get between you and all rudeness and inappropriateness at this time. Those who don’t know what to say, try this: “I’m so sorry. I care.” Do. Not. Blather.

    • lakey August 13, 2018, 11:28 am

      This. The more you talk, the more you are likely to say something stupid. Thankfully your cousin was quick thinking.

  • Kathryn August 13, 2018, 6:58 am

    Some people just love to know things and its rather obnoxious. When we announced my pregnancy at my (very small) church, a woman told me that she suspected as much because I’d been sitting down more than usual. Which is weird because we were just acquaintances, I hadn’t noticed that and also I had a toddler to care for which would explain plenty. She’s just the kind of woman who likes to be in the know about stuff.

    I’m sorry about your uncle and that the obnoxious comments of an acquaintance would so burden your poor aunt who needs comfort and not guilt.

    • Rebecca M August 14, 2018, 9:31 am

      When we announced our pregnancy, my husband’s cousin claimed she knew because my boobs were “enormous”. They hadn’t gotten any bigger at that point. She just wanted to be the smarty-pants who knew it all.

  • DGS August 13, 2018, 7:51 am

    There are always people who want to seem important or knowing, even in situations (especially, in situations), where they have known very very little or in no way could have predicted anything about the subject. Those are the same people that are eager to get 15 minutes of fame by appearing as a “concerned citizen” or “next door neighbor” in some news story, pontificating some elaborate nonsense about some horrific prime time tragedy. I am terribly sorry that your Aunt had to go through that, especially so soon after the sudden and traumatic death of her beloved husband. The only appropriate response in times of tragedy is, “I am so terribly sorry for your loss”. That’s it. That’s all.

  • JD August 13, 2018, 8:30 am

    I agree with DGS — some people just have to be the one “who knows.” To say something like that to a grieving widow is just mean, even if she didn’t intend for it to come out that way. At funerals, no conversational creativity is needed. “I’m so sorry,” works very, very well, all by itself.

  • LizaJane August 13, 2018, 8:45 am

    Then she should have said something. Not that I really think she knew or even noticed anything, but I think that’s a good way to turn it around on people like this. “Really? Oh why oh why didn’t you say something? You could have saved his life and now he’s dead because of you!!!” \

    Ok, maybe that’s a bit much, but maybe not.

    A few years ago we ran into some old friends and I remember thinking his color was really bad. He was always very dark complected and tan, but I brushed it off with maybe he wasn’t spending much time outside since retirement or that the lighting in the restaurant was bad.

    Two weeks later he was dead of a massive heart attack? Do I wish I’d said something that night? You bet I do. I still regret not following them out of the restaurant. Maybe he’d have gotten checked, maybe he wouldn’t have.

    Did I say anything afterward? Nope.

  • staceyizme August 13, 2018, 9:06 am

    What an inconsiderate comment! I don’t think it would have been out of line in the slightest to ask her what she could possibly have meant by such a remark! It sounds like she’s looking for attention ( and that she has absolutely no regard for how she comes by that social commodity).

  • Catherine St. Clair August 13, 2018, 9:35 am

    There are some people who should be gagged during times of stress and sadness. My mother knew she had terminal cancer. A “friend” of hers called her and insisted on regaling her with the details of her sister’s death from cancer which culminated with, ” … and she died fully conscious and screaming!” My mother was too timid to stop her. After mother died, the friend called me to tell me how much help she had been to mother and how they could talk freely about how her own sister had died of cancer. I must take after another, less timid, relative because I said, “Yes, and mother used to dread your calls because she did not want to hear those gruesome details.”

    • Barb August 14, 2018, 7:21 am

      I was talking to an acquaintance about people telling my late DH about their experiences with cancer when he was diagnosed. She was a BC survivor and told me when people started that with her, she would just put out her hand and say “Stop. I can’t deal with any cancer stories now.” I wish I could have done that for DH.

      • EchoGirl August 20, 2018, 12:40 am

        I’ve heard of it happening to pregnant women too, which in some ways almost seems worse given that many women have relatively unremarkable pregnancies, but the blatherers always have the one horror story to share and potentially make the pregnant woman afraid of something that she’s not actually likely to experience.

  • Aje August 13, 2018, 10:01 am

    Oh I am already cringing thinking of times I’ve been at Funerals very young, standing there and not knowing what to say… in particular because “I’m so sorry for your loss” seems so empty even though it’s true. A cousin of mine lost her Dad, suddenly and tragically. And I was not particularly close to her, though I really liked her Father. I remember shaking her hand as a 14 year old and saying, “When you have Dads who are as great as ours, it’s really hard to even think about life without them”. And then I realized I was standing next to my Dad. Like, it wasn’t an untrue and I meant it very sincerely, but it wasn’t really helpful. UAAAGHHHH. Over ten years later and I still want to bury my head in the sand for it.

    Hopefully this lady went home and had the same blush enducing “I can’t believe I said that” moment I had at 14. Live and learn.

    • LizaJane August 14, 2018, 6:52 am

      I don’t see anything wrong with what you said. It’s a lovely sentiment.

  • gramma dishes August 13, 2018, 10:09 am

    Good grief. I had a ‘married in’ aunt like this. No matter what happened, she knew all about it. She needed to keep all the attention on herself. Of course the reality was that she was just spouting off, trying to make herself look “special” and important and making everything all about her.

    The amazing thing was that everyone knew, yet no one ever called her on it.

    I really wish they had.

  • Harry's Mom August 13, 2018, 12:13 pm

    My father committed suicide. As I was calling to let people know that he had passed away, the obvious question was how did he die. Most people were placated with ‘he took his own life’ and left it at that but a few wanted to know how. At the time I was so numb and in shock it didn’t register as rude, but now I’m not so sure.

    • Lerah99 August 13, 2018, 2:34 pm

      Some people seem to feel their curiosity justifies their rudeness.

      My friend’s college aged nephew died suddenly in a car accident.

      His family was broke and needed to drive a few hundred miles, collect all his stuff from his college apartment, and pay out the rest of his lease so the other kids he was renting with wouldn’t all have to cover his share or get evicted, etc… on top of the normal funeral/burial costs.

      My friend posted the family’s GoFundMe asking if people could help with this tragic and unexpected expense.

      The GoFundMe simply stated that the young man “died suddenly and unexpected Friday night”.

      My friend’s IM’s were filled with people asking questions about how EXACTLY did he die.
      Others made it clear that they assumed he died from a drug overdose or suicide since the family was “too afraid” to be specific.

      My friend asked one of the questioners “How can you possibly think that’s an appropriate question?”

      The questioner responded “I’m just curious. Don’t post about it if you don’t want people to ask questions. Why? Was the way he died really embarrassing or terrible? Will there be an open casket?”

      • A Person August 15, 2018, 7:20 pm

        Evil Person’s response to the last question is “There won’t be enough of you for a casket if you don’t buzz off.”

        Seriously, that person was RUDE!!

  • Skaramouche August 13, 2018, 1:27 pm

    Really, there’s nothing appropriate to say to such a terrible comment without making the situation worse and your cousin did a great job of consoling his mother under the circumstances. However, here are some possible responses to the inconsiderate boor***:

    “Wow, really? So you knew always he was going to get cancer? You are so smart!”
    “Oh wow, are you psychic? You must be given that there was no hint of anything until 3 months before he passed away.”
    “Thank you SO much for your kind comments. The widow will no doubt be comforted to know that you *always knew* there was something wrong with her husband.”

    ***these are for venting purposes only and are not intended to actually be said because of course boors like these have an answer to everything, logical or not, and an uncanny tendency to exacerbate bad situations. Of course, that’s not even mentioning the fact that it’s completely inappropriate in that setting to say things like these.

  • mark132 August 13, 2018, 1:55 pm

    One thing to realize. There isn’t any perfect formula. Some people when grieving want to discuss it at length as part of a grieving process. Some want to cry, some want to rage, some want to be numb, some want to reminisce, and some want to do a mix of everything.

    I usually keep it short, because I really don’t know what to say. I offer my sympathy and let my presence do my speaking for me.

  • kgg August 13, 2018, 3:40 pm

    I wonder what would happen if someone looked aghast at these people and exclaimed, “What is WRONG with you?!”

  • Dawn Stafford August 13, 2018, 5:03 pm

    My husband had open heart surgery this summer. One friend came by the hospital and said he’d been concerned because my spouse had been looking “gray”. I asked why he didn’t say anything, and he said, ”What should I have said? Your coloring is looking gray to me.” I said, “Yes, that’s exactly what you should say. When you see someone every day you don’t notice the changes that are obvious to people who see them once or twice a month. I’d have had him in to see the doctor months earlier and he might have just had stents instead of a double bypass!” Good grief.

    -Dawn

  • Elisabeth August 13, 2018, 6:05 pm

    This is the same sort of person who will hear about a loved one, friend, neighbor, or child thereof suffering from mental illness, depression, miscarriages, or an eating disorder, and decide that this is the correct time to advertise their essential oil “business”.

  • GratefulMaria August 15, 2018, 1:46 pm

    When my father died at home of heart disease, his cardiologist told my mother “You did everything right.” I wish everyone had a doctor like that.

  • Kate August 17, 2018, 5:33 am

    Not as severe or thoughtless as this story, but when I moved out of home at 17, I was diagnosed with mental illness (OCD, depression and general anxiety disorder) fairly soon after moving – basically as soon as I took myself off to the doctor and explained my symptoms. In hindsight, there were some fairly clear indicators that my parents had missed, but it’s difficult to pick up mental illness when someone is fairly high functioning and appears ‘normal’.

    My parents waited a while before mentioning the diagnosis to other family members. As soon as she found out, one of my aunts contacted my parents immediately saying she “couldn’t believe they missed it” and “why didn’t they take me to a doctor sooner” because for years she *just knew* I had mental illness. My parents were like, if this is true, why on earth would you not say something? And if it’s untrue, which we suspect – why are you making this your business?!

  • EchoGirl August 20, 2018, 12:23 am

    I don’t know if anyone else here has watched “Jessica Jones”, but there’s a scene in one episode about this kind of thing that’s really on-point. A busybody along the same lines as OP’s aunt’s neighbor comments that she “had a sense that something terrible was going to happen” just before the car crash that killed the protagonist’s family. When another character forces her to tell the truth (long story, it makes sense in context), she admits that no, that never happened, she just said it because it makes her feel important. It seems to me that the same thing is going on with the neighbor in this story. It’s not about making your aunt feel guilty (though she’s certainly not going out of her way *not* to), it’s that she wants to feel important or like she has something everyone else doesn’t, and she has no regard at all for how she might be making other people feel in the process.

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