Dealing with death, what not to say

A couple of weeks ago, I saw the play Steel Magnolias at the Thibodaux Playhouse. I had seen the play before and also the movie but this time I was moved to tears over the basic message of the play. Two weeks ago, I published the 10 stages of grief as a help for those who have lost a love one. Steel Magnolias embodied most of those stages.

Robert Harling who grew up in Natchitoches, Louisiana, wrote the play when he lost his sister and best friend Susan to diabetes in 1985. Harling wrote Steel Magnolias as a way dealing with his sister’s death. In the play, Susan became Shelby.

The movie with its all-star cast is very similar to the play. The story takes place in fictional Northwestern Louisiana town called Chinquapin. All four scenes are in a beauty salon. The six women feel that this beauty parlor is their safe space – their confessional.

The beauty parlor owned is Truvy Jones and she has a good friend named M’Lynn, whose daughter is getting married. Unfortunately, Shelby (her daughter) is a diabetic and although she sees her diabetes as an intruder, she never let it stop her from following her dreams.

Sometimes people portray Southern belles as “lightweight” on the outside but the author shows the strength of these six women who are strong enough to survive any challenge. They can fight, make up, hug each other and cry. When a tragic death occurs, they have the strength to grieve and smile through their tears. That’s why the author called them Steel Magnolias.

In the story, Shelby gets pregnant despite her doctor’s warnings and her mother’s disapproval. While the pregnancy was a blessing for Shelby and her family, it severely weakened her kidneys, causing her to start dialysis treatment. Eventually, M’Lynn donates one of her kidneys to Shelby but the operation fails.

A few months later, Shelby falls to the floor, losing consciousness and eventually goes into a coma. They hospitalize her and but she does not wake up. Her husband then decides to take her off her life support systems and she passes away.

Every person has their own way of dealing with death. When Shelby dies, the older women rally around their friend, M’Lynn. Her grief and rage are very strong and forceful. They try unsuccessfully to make her feel better, to lessen her loss. However, they know they cannot. They cannot make her grief go away or justify her loss. They cannot change anything, though they wish they could.

They are helpless in the face of so much pain. So they do what friends always do. They wait. They let her scream, cry, pace and curse. Then, they make her laugh and relieve the tension. Her daughter was still dead and her grandson would have to grow up now without a mother. Nothing changed except one thing: she was not alone in her grief.

“I don’t know what to say” is a common excuse for someone to avoid a grieving person. Well, a true friend does not have to say a darn thing. They just have to show up and be present. Just listen to the pain. Don’t be judgmental or try to “fix” the person. By your presence and attention, you will make all the difference in the world to a grieving person.

Another woman in the play, Annelle, is very religious. She tries to comfort M’Lynn with a religious platitude, “At least Shelby is with God now.” We often hear people say to grieving family members, “He’s in a better place,” or “She’s watching over you,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Well, none of these pious sayings are helpful.

Jesus cried for his friend Lazarus. Don’t be afraid to grieve. Do like Jesus: Cry! We have to go through the cross to obtain new life!

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