Skip to main content

Thoughtless Questions: How Did He/She Die?

Image by John Hain from Pixabay
A few years ago, my older sister died. Although I have dealt with death a few times within my family, this first death within my nuclear family has granted me greater awareness of the many challenges survivors face after a loved one dies. One of the most significant challenges is dealing with the many questions people ask after a life ends. The people who ask these questions don't have bad intentions yet the questions they ask are thoughtless.

One such question is: How did she/he die? 

My hope in writing this article is to share why you should avoid asking this question, why I believe people ask this question, and, for those who want to show support to survivors, provide alternative talking points. 

First, I want to share part of my story. I am currently 43 years old. A few years ago, my older sister died. As you can imagine, it wasn't expected. It was a tragedy in every sense of the word. Unexpected, terrible, and shocking, are all words I could use to describe the events that took place. What made it worse was that when it came to understanding what had happened, my family was, and is, still somewhat in the dark. There are many unanswered questions. Even as I write this, two years later, I feel pain and anger. This only happens during the moments I choose to enter into that place. 

One of the most common questions people asked me immediately after her death, and still today, is how did she die? If someone died in a clear-cut way -- they got old, they had cancer, they had a heart attack -- this question is easy enough to answer. That doesn't make it less painful, but it's a question with a clear answer. You can answer and move on. But what if you ask the question, and the answer isn't so clear-cut? What if someone chose to die by suicide, or if there are factors about the hours leading up to the person's death that are unclear? This question opens up great pain. You may be asking them to explain something they don't themselves understand yet. People ask this question thoughtlessly, as if it's a "fair question," when it's not. It might be a natural thing that you are curious about, but that doesn't mean you have a right to ask it. If you truly want to support someone, you might ask yourself, do I have a right to ask this question?

Although you may think it's a good and natural way to talk to someone who has just suffered a loss, the cause of someone's death isn't truly relevant. Whatever the reason, the person is now dead. The exact details of how it happened aren't truly the issue. We are hurting because the person is gone. A person we loved, valued, and cared for is no longer around. Even if we haven't seen them for years, it is upsetting that a life we valued is no longer there. In these moments, we look for answers. But it may not be the best idea to seek those answers from the people who are closest to the departed. 

Why do people ask this question? 
1. You are curious. People love a good tragedy. It's like a car accident, and you can't help but slow down as you drive past to see what befell a fellow human being. 
2. You want to know if it could happen to you. One of the best ways to avoid accidents or early death is to be aware of all the dangers in the world and try to avoid them. Of course, tragedy can befall anyone at any time, but it doesn't hurt to be on the guard. 
3. You want to know if their death is similar to one you have already endured. We all look for kindred spirits -- those souls that go through an experience similar to ours. Maybe then, we can find someone who can understand what we have endured. 

Notice that none of these reason have anything to do with supporting the grieving. They are all inherently about self-interest or curiosity and have nothing to do with being a good friend to someone dealing with an immediate tragedy or trauma.

What does someone experience when you ask them this question? 
When you ask someone this question, especially right after the death has happened, please realize that they have been asked this question numerous times. Now, let's say they decide to share with you. If the story is longer than a simple answer -- to repeat, something like cancer, old age, or a heart attack -- often you get one of two responses. As you begin to share a complicated and painful story, the listener either begins to feel bad for you or realize, "Oh crap, this is more than I needed/wanted to know. Now I feel uncomfortable, and I'm not sure what to say." Which often leads to you, the person who is supposed to be comforted, in the awkward place of comforting a person who has asked you for this information.

Now ask yourself, do I really want to know how they died? Am I prepared to support this person in front of me, no matter what they say? Am I prepared to hold them and the weight of their grief. If not, don't ask. If they do decide to share, accept the share as a gift. People who share their pain, grief, and stories with you do it at a cost to themselves. It is the highest honor for someone to share their story with you. 

Who (if anyone) has the right to ask this question? 
Only people who are as close or closer to the loved one as you. I truly believe this is a question best left unasked. If your friend wants to share this with you, they will do so in their own time. Even if you knew them yourself, don't ask this question, unless you are in the same level of closeness. 

What can I ask or say instead? 
I'm so sorry you lost (your family member/sister/brother/parent/partner/friend). 
  • I would love to hear more about them. 
  • What would you like to tell me about them? 
  • What will you miss the most about them? 
  • What's your favorite memory about them? 
  • I have some great memories about X. Would you like to hear some of them? 
  • One of the things I remember most of them/will miss the most is . . . 
  • I remember the time they were there for me when . . . 
If you truly feel like you want to know for a better reason than curiosity, I would recommend you ask in this way: "I really cared for Bill. Part of me really wants to know how this happened. Would you be willing to share that with me? I know it can be painful to talk about, but I would like to hear anything you want to tell me." 

You can see that not just anyone would use this dialogue. 

If people stopped asking this question, it would open up opportunities to better support someone. I remember at the funeral having multiple people ask me this question, and each time, I would gritted my teeth and wanted to scream. I recommend you avoid asking this question in the future and look for better ways to support your friend going through this terrible time. 




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Riley Stearns' The Art of Self-Defense (2019) Movie Review: Do NOT Talk About Night Class

In 1999, David Fincher directed the book to movie Fight Club, a dark stylized comedy about a group of men who form a "support group" of sorts called Fight Club, where they pair up for no holds barred unarmed first fights with one another. Organized by the charismatic Tyler Durden, for a time, the meetings seem to be a good thing. Things start to spiral when the hero realizes Tyler is no good and must be stopped.

In many surface ways, The Art of Self-Defense is quite similar. Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) walks around like he is apologizing for taking up oxygen. He lives alone with his dog and works at a boring, thankless job as an accountant. One day, Jesse is attacked on the street by some unidentified motorcycle riders. He's hospitalized for his wounds and takes some times off work.

On a walk around town, he overhears a karate class and goes into observe. He feels intrigued and inspired by what he sees and decide to sign up for classes. He hopes that he can "become wha…

Ali Abassi's Border (2018): A Dark Swedish Fairy Tale

Have you ever felt like you are alone? Like you exist and move around in a community of people that you are nothing like?

Imagine how Tina feels. She works as a highly competent border guard for the sole reason that her sense of smell is extrasensory. She can smell fear, shame, and any negative emotion on people as they cross through her security area, and she is never wrong about her suspicions. Her work career, however, might be the only thing she has going for her.

She lives on the outskirts of town with a boyfriend that owns a pack of dogs, and from all counts, they live together in a loveless domestic arrangement that is hard to imagine either of them conceiving. Things become a little clearer later as we learn that Tina owns the home and the boyfriend is enjoying the luxury of living rent free. Tina appears to have no family except for the man she calls father, who claims to have adopted her.

Tina is unattractive by human standards and is most often seen staring attentively and …

Alfonso Cuarón's Roma (2018) A Window into the Life of a Working Class Woman

For every person who keeps their hands clean and smooth from doing heavy duty manual labor, there are people who work thanklessly in the background, making life comfortable for those few. This is the subject of Roma, a film set in Mexico City with original screenplay written in Spanish. Roma takes one of those hardworking people and brings her front and center.

Cleo is the housekeeper of a middle-class family in the 1970s. She cleans the house, cleans the dog poo off the house entrance, brings the family tea, and serves them at mealtime. Cleo comes across as diligent, hardworking, sweet, shy, non-demanding, and loving. The children seem to adore her. She is a constant in their lives, and they treat her as one would expect a person who demands or expects nothing in return. At times, she’s like wallpaper. Other times, they are affectionate with her and desire her attention.

There isn’t much plot to this movie. Cleo does have some romantic adventures and deals with an unexpected pregn…