When someone you know suffers a loss, many people just don’t know what to say, and this discomfort surrounding grief brings deeper silence and isolation to those grieving. So, here is my not so short guide attempting to help you to speak more effectively to grieving people, mostly by understanding things not to say.
There are two basic rules:
Rule 1: Saying nothing is always the wrong answer and will likely be misinterpreted as a lack of caring and compassion on your part.
Rule 2: Slow down and think. Think about what you say or will say, because saying something is also very risky, a literal minefield full of explosives and quicksand, because grief is very emotional and extremely personal. Unthinking is unfeeling, so think before you speak and speak with considered feeling.
From here on, most of this post will be exclusions, generalities of things to not say. If you respect those boundaries, you have a better experience as you acquire more experience and comfort.
I am blessed with the curse of a near photographic memory. In the public visitations after our son’s death, a big event in life of a small town, a Civic Funeral for a Fallen Firefighter, we saw and spoke to many more than a thousand people.
I don’t really know a thousand friends, so the majority of them were not close friends or family. But, eighteen years later, I probably still remember every comment that, in that painful moment, I found insensitive or painful rather than comforting or considered. I remember the look of dread on some faces as their turn in the line approached us, the time they would feel compelled to intelligibly speak some form of compassionate wisdom, coupled with the horrible realization that they were now too close to just turn around an bolt for the nearest door.
If you won’t want to be here, imagine how I feel. I am trapped, wounded and cornered by convention and circumstance. Approach me carefully but confidently, because I am looking for things to be angry about, I am a bomb of emotions waiting to explode.
Keep your beliefs out of it
In the aftermath of a death, even lifelong rock solid beliefs can easily turn to quicksand, they can become unstable quickly. Before this death, we have probably never had a conversation on what you believe and what I believe.
This is not the time to offer your faith, unless your faith is certain to be their faith. I admire and accept all compassionate faiths, I understand that faith is a good thing for many, but faith, organized or disorganized (I am mostly agnostic, but believe in some major things common in most religion) is the most personal choice of any life. But this gathering is not the time or place for either faith or politics unless you are close enough to them to know for certain.
Platitudes hurt more than silence
Leave the greeting card phrases and platitudes at home. “He’s in a better place” is, for me, the killer unthinking platitude when someone has died. It’s a greeting card based in belief that there is some place we go after death, and that place is better than here.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is an insensitive thing to say to someone currently feeling like they are being slowly killed by grief. We’re drowning, choking on life here, gasping for breath and you want us to see the bright side, which is that we’re getting stronger?
This is our experience; make this time about us, not you.
“Just give it time”. Please don’t tell me that you understand our grief because your 93 year old Aunt Edna died six months ago and now you are healed just fine. Also, I fully respect the very real challenges of grieving a beloved pet, but bringing that to our grief for a related human is just not helpful. There are orders of magnitude between them.
“Call me if you need anything”
We heard this hundreds of times; we never called anyone for help. Because of good people around us, help just showed up, sometimes in the most wonderful ways.
We are broken, we are vulnerable, and we are very unlikely to call someone for help. Part of that is that we avoid sucking people unwillingly into our downward vortex, our days have been ruined and we avoid dragging innocent people into our tragedy. Yes, that’s perhaps stubborn and insensitive of us, but it’s how we responded to a loss of a loved one.
Asking me to call is passive support: it puts the onus on me to request your help. If you really want to help, check back later I will be doing another post on ways to actually help.
“How are you doing?”
If that’s not obvious, you really have little business here talking to me. It’s probably much better to visualize me without an arm, the wound still bleeding profusely, and then speak about what you don’t see. Avoid the obvious, the wound and blood; we’re here to dig much deeper and to talk about the missing arm. Stick with me; I’ll talk more on that later in the post.
How and what to say
I could go on for days with examples about what not to say, so let’s pivot first to how to speak with those wounded by grief, and then give you some practical pointers on what you might say.
Make eye contact, even if your eyes are filled with tears, especially if your eyes are filled with tears. It’s said that the eyes are windows to our soul, so looking people in the eye when we speak to them makes a magical connection with their soul, and presents your thoughts as honest and soulful. Tearful eye to tearful eye is the most direct and soulful connection, in many ways it’s exactly what those grieving need.
Without eye contact the most profound statement is diminished to irrelevance and background noise. If they are reluctant to make eye contact, please keep looking at their eyes while you speak, they may furtively glance back seeking a connection and if you have turned away they will judge the veracity of what you say by your lack of commitment to making eye contact.
My pain was so visible that it took me about two years to look myself in the eye in a mirror, so understand that you will see pain before you engage.
Physical connection is good, but respect boundaries and usually approval. If offered a handshake, be firm but much gentler than usual. Shaking a thousand hands over a few days gets painful. Let the receiver choose when to break the handshake.
I am an unstoppable hugger, but with acquaintances I preferred someone asking me before they launched into a hug. Hugs create the intimacy for deeper connections, mouths are closer to ears and there is opportunity for more privacy and short quiet thoughts. Hugs need to end before they might get creepy, but generally let those grieving dictate the length and intensity of the hug. Start small with a hug, and again let the receiver define and break the hug.
I never thought about it, but I’ve been told that the giver of the hug places their arms over the arms of the receiver, at over six feet tall that’s easy for me to say. When giving a hug, offer open arms and let them engage or not. When their arms hug you, your arms will naturally engage over their arms in the giver or inside position.
What to say?
Say something about the person who has died, something that you respect about that life, or something you have learned from that life, or a happy time you shared that you remember.
Say something that shows that you know the deceased was a good person who gave something of his life to others.
If you’re on the periphery the social rings of this person, the obituary can usually provide things to mention that were important to the family.
Make what you say about the years of life of this person, not the months, weeks or minutes of the death of this person.
Make it all about the life of the person who has died, and you’ll get it exactly right for those who are grieving.
Bring peace and love, share it with consideration and sensitivity with the living so the love continues.