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“I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they'll 'say something about it' or not. I hate if they do, and if they don't.” - A Grief Observed
Grief will flummox the most eloquent. When our friends hurt, all we want is to stand beside them and show them they’re not alone, and somehow words always seem to tumble out. But how can you possibly find the “right words” when the reality of death and suffering is so very wrong? The attempt is bound to result in some flubs, yet silence is hard to manage.
After my mom passed away recently, just a couple weeks before her 53rd birthday, I’ve suddenly found myself on the receiving end of sympathy. People have approached me with amazing love and kindness, so very well-intentioned and wanting so badly to help. I appreciate the sentiment so much—the simple acknowledgement that life is irreversibly different is more helpful than you can imagine. And yet, the expression has sometimes made me shake my head. There’s sometimes a hilariously wide difference between the intention and the bizarre outpouring.
I’m sure many people are simply clueless, as I was before this paradigm shift. So I’m cataloguing a few of the well-intentioned-but-not-so-helpful things people have said for the sake of building empathy. If this helps floundering friends speak comfort a little more readily, then sharing is worth it.
With that in mind, here's a short catalog of some common, very well-intentioned comments I've received... and why I've cocked my head at the people who utter them.
Well-intentioned: "If there's anything I can do to help" and "Let me know what I can do."
Why it doesn't work: A couple reasons, actually. First, I appreciate your assumption that my brain is still functioning on all cylinders, but... it's not. Right now, I have the mental energy to answer yes/no questions, but open-ended questions that require more processing from me? Not so much. Secondly, I didn't realize until now how much grief consumes the immediate and hampers future planning skills. For instance, I probably do need something from the grocery store. But I won't realize it until the exact instant that I need it (e.g. milk for tomorrow's breakfast) and the only thing to do is run out at 11p.m. at night. Oops.
Better: "Hey, I'm going to the grocery store right now, can I pick up some staples for you? Milk? Eggs? Bread? Do you have a list?" or "Hey, can I come over and clean your bathrooms? Does Tuesday work?"
My brain has much less pressure in this scenario--the onus isn't on me to call you and hope you're still willing to do a nebulous "anything," and I can latch onto something concrete with easy answers. I'm eternally grateful for the people who really did clean my bathrooms and bring my family groceries--that was huge.
Well-intentioned: "Hey, you look sad."
Why it doesn't work: Yes, I probably do. I know you're trying to tell me that you notice my hurt and carry it with me. But... um, trying to live my life and get through the day’s responsibilities. The place to bring this up is over coffee, not at random (or at work or in the middle of church). I'm pretty sure I'm only at half-mast but bringing it up doesn't help me focus on what's at hand. And now I’m self-conscious to boot.
Better: "Do you need a hand with that project? I'm happy to help." Or send me a note that I can read in my own time.
Well-intentioned: "I'm a safe person. You can talk to me anytime if you need to vent or scream or cry."
Why it doesn't work: I have to preface this by saying why this sentiment doesn't work for me personally, as maybe others do need it. I'm incredibly blessed to have strong friends and a strong community, and I'm also a relatively private person. I know that when people say this, they really just mean they want to help. But if I didn't have a strong relationship with you before this, why would I pour out my soul to you now? When someone I barely know says this phrase, it can sound downright opportunist.
There is a special exception: if you’ve been through a hurt similar to mine, you may have special wisdom to give. You can be a lifeline when you say, “Here’s what you can expect. And I promise you will make it through. I’m right here with you.”
Better: "I've been thinking about you guys a lot, and I love you." You're honoring my boundaries while telling me you care. This means the world. If you really want to help, offer something concrete, like a meal or a notecard with encouragement/prayer.
Well-intentioned: In this scenario, you've just seen the person for the first time since the death/the big news, and you're both in the middle of a larger event. You go up to your friend and say, "I'm so sorry about [blank]. How are you holding up? How was the funeral?"
Why it doesn't work: I can't stress enough how important it is to choose the timing of your condolences. I understand that you want to know, but I'm in the middle of a party, a Christmas celebration, a happy hour after work, and you want me to conjure up my grief in a completely incongruous situation, on the spot, for you? Sometimes, it's just nice to enjoy a kind of normalcy for a little while. Of course I haven't forgotten the pain - rather, I'm choosing to focus on something else for a little while, because that's healing too. Let me.
Better: "I've missed you over the last few months. It's really good to see you again. Hey, would you want to get coffee soon?" This lets the person know that you've noticed their absence, and you care. Plus, it offers a gateway to a private conversation, without the stress of answering pointed questions.
Well-intentioned: "I know how you feel. My mom died when she was 80."
Why it doesn't work: No two griefs are the same. Assuming you know how another person is feeling/processing is just that--an assumption. We all know death, but not in the same way. For example, my own mom died at 52, leaving behind four kids still at home and three in highschool. I'm sorry your mom died at age 80, but please understand that I'm grieving decades of lost time and unmade memories, as well as trying to step up to help meet my younger siblings' practical needs. No, you don't know how I feel, and I'm trying hard not to feel insulted by your comparison.
Better: "I'm sorry for your loss" and "Hang in there. I promise someday it gets better." If you're not so close, the tried-and-true line is a good one. If you've been through strong, close grief, then maybe an encouragement that someday the weight lifts a little is appropriate. It doesn't assume the griefs are the same, but it does offer some hope.
Well-intentioned: "God is in control."
Why it doesn't work: Closely aligned with "God will use this for good somehow," statements like this fall into the really-bad-timing category. Maybe they are true. But in grief, we want a God who is close and immanent and feels our hurts. A big God in control of the whole universe (yet a loved one died) working out some distant good (my hurt is now) is quite frankly irrelevant at the moment. I need a Jesus that weeps with me, who knows my sorrow because he carried his own.
Better: "God himself mourns with those who mourns. Death is still the enemy, and I'm so sorry you met it now." Remind me that God's heart breaks with mine. Remind me that even in God's grand plan, death is still an inherent wrong that needs to be righted.
Well-intentioned: "[Blank] lived a full life, and is with Jesus now."
Why it doesn't work: This one isn't so bad, actually, but it's pretty incomplete. First, you don't know if a person lived his own definition of a full life. And we miss them here, with us. I fully believe that my mom lived every moment of her almost-53 years to the brim, but the days are empty now. What you're saying has a cognitive dissonance with my new reality.
Better: "[Blank] was always so full of life. I remember that time..." Share a memory you hold dear with me. I don't get to make new memories now, so the shared ones are much dearer. I love hearing them.
There are no perfect responses to loss. But thanks for listening and trying to say the less-bad things, all the same. And above all? Never, ever be afraid to simply stand with the hurting and say, “I love you. You’re not alone.” That’s always a good thing to say.
Article originally posted at Who Are the Brittons. Used with permission.
Katherine Britton is a commercial and hired-gun writer and editor who still wears her green newspaper visor when she thinks no one is looking. You can read more of her work on her personal blog.
Publication date: January 9, 2014