People seem fundamentally predisposed to avoid thinking about death and grief. This capacity for denial is especially true in the U.S. and U.K., where death is trivialized through dark humor and considered through the perspective of slasher films – a kind of pornography of death that allows us to symbolically triumph over it for 90 minutes without actually taking it seriously.
In certain Asian, African, and Latin societies, and in Norway, people tend to be less uncomfortable with the idea of death, and more spontaneous and genuine about celebrating the lives of those who have moved on.
Death is our greatest taboo, more so even than sex during the Victorian era.
Most Americans do everything they can to resist consideration of their eventual deaths. This great denial is achieved largely through pleasure-seeking, and includes the endless pursuit of sex, gourmet meals, shopping, video games, watching television, listening to music, texting and tweeting, unending fascination with every aspect of sports, incessant body-building, collecting things, and so on. Every day our culture finds new ways to distract us from the fact that each of us will, at some point, die, and that each of us will lose loved ones.
Our denial of death is a practical defense mechanism. And of course we need to eat, make love, shop, exercise, and so forth. Yet carried to the extreme of Western-style pleasure-pursuit, avoidance of death-awareness cripples our ability to truly live. When we are unable to face the mortifying, inevitable fact of physical death, we are like sleep-walkers following programmed instructions that hinder our abilities to be genuine and effective in times of loss and grief.
When faced with the fact of someone’s death, we are often so stunned or horrified that we just don’t know what to say to family and friends of the deceased. Sometimes, we find ourselves uttering catchwords such as, “I understand what you are going through,” or “Time heals all,” or “God had a reason for taking your loved one.” These statements are drivel that can do more harm than good.
Sometimes, we are so unbalanced by the situation of someone’s grief that we say nothing – words simply won’t come, and we find ourselves standing there feeling idiotic. This is not an ideal response to someone’s grief, but it is an improvement over trite phrases that might be uttered more for our own convenience than for truly expressing sympathy.
Yes, it can be terribly difficult – scary, even – to consider what to say to those in grief, because this requires taking a serious look at death. It can seem impossible to look death in the face, if one has not experienced the loss of a loved one. Yet there is help: even if you are not ready to confront the fact of your own mortality, and wake up from your denial of death, there are things you can say to those in grief that may be helpful. There are also statements to avoid.
Knowing what to say to those in grief may not help them feel better. When you have just lost the one you lived for, you may find yourself in a different universe, and everything and everyone around you may seem incomprehensibly alien. Yet it could be, too, that your thoughtful actions just might make a positive difference in their lives. Saying the right thing might help you feel better, too.
Certain words and phrases should be avoided when expressing sympathy for those in grief.
Do not say anything that implies limits on the duration or intensity of grief. Grief is not an illness, no matter how many well-meaning but misguided psychiatrists have tried to pathologize it. It is not something that can be treated with triage. There are no bandages for the loss of someone you love.
Grief is its own phenomenon, unique for each experiencer: it is messy, it happens in its own time and space, it can be mild as two weeks of sadness or as intense as disintegration for an eternity in the sun’s corona. Grief can last for a lifetime in every moment, at uncharted intensity, and that does not make it any sort of mental illness. For who can speak for another’s loss and say just how it should be experienced?
Each person in grief is the true expert on how to grieve. It is perhaps a sacred experience, and the most any of us can do is try to make the sufferer as safe and comfortable as possible, then get out of the way as he or she teaches us what it means to be alive.
Avoid catch phrases such as, “Time heals all.” First of all, it sounds contrived, plastic, stated for your own convenience so you can get the hell out of the wake as quickly as possible. Secondly, it is untrue. For example, time does NOT necessarily heal grief – for, as stated above, the bereaved have every right to grieve as long as necessary without having the trip laid on them of “getting over it.”
Never say to the bereaved, “I know how you feel.” You may think you know how they feel, because you too may have lost a beloved family member or friend, but actually, that was your experience of grief, not theirs. Each person grieves in his or her own way. Don’t make the conversation about yourself; keep it focused on their loss, not yours.
I have often heard people say, to me and to others in deep grief, that the death of a loved one “…is God’s will.” Just about nothing can upset a person in grief more than these words. When we lose those most precious to us, we may wonder why God could possibly allow their deaths. It seems wrong! Cruel! Unacceptable!
The idea that God would “take” someone to satisfy a personal whim is abominable. Whether or not you and/or the bereaved individual are religious, leave the topic of God out of expression of sympathy, unless the bereaved person brings it up; and if that is the case, you are on your own.
“You are doing so well” is another phrase to avoid. Do you live in that person’s head or heart? For all you know he or she may look okay but be contemplating suicide. Do not add expectations of “doing well” to those already so burdened with the loss of their loved ones, the funeral arrangements (a dreadful experience), the memorial service, etc., that they are probably feeling like death themselves. Don’t push your expectations on them; simply allow them their grief.
Do not say, “Be brave” or “Be strong.” Who cares about bravery when faced with such essential questions as, “my child is dead. Should I live or die?”
You might find yourself saying, “Others have lived through it and so can you.” This thoughtless statement is possibly dangerous: someone who has just lost his or her beloved child, brother or sister, mother or father, grandparent, or best friend might feel so close to death already that he or she is pushed over the edge by being told they can “get through it.”
Maybe that person doesn’t want to get through it! Whether or not to continue when confronted by life’s worst moments is an entirely personal decision. Hopefully he or she will decide to hold on to life – but this is something with which someone must personally come to terms.
While doctors and nurses are guided by the Hippocratic oath to seek healing for us, “healing” is not something that should be pressed on someone in grief. The pain of deep grief, though unfathomably awful, can be a critical connection to those we have lost. Like Linus with his blanket, we should be able to hold on to our grief as long as we feel necessary, without Lucy trying to bury it.
Healing can be achieved, yes, but only if and when the bereaved is ready, at his or her own pace. A more reasonable alternative path to consider – one which I have chosen – is learning to live with my grief. I have no desire to get over it or “be healed.” My grief has changed me like a bath in alchemical fire, and I’ll never be the person I was before my daughter’s death. Nor do I wish to be. My grief motivates me to keep living so that I may be of service to others in grief. I’ll be damned if I’ll “get through it” in order to please others.
“Your loved one has lived to a ripe old age. At least she had a long and eventful life!” Yeah, I have heard this one quite often when people are trying to console those in grief. But does the fact that someone had a long life necessarily make the relative’s grief any less? Your grandmother may have lived to be 111, but still, she was the one who raised you when your mom and dad ran off, she was your best friend, and she made great sacrifices for you. If she was suffering badly before her death, it is of course fine to be grateful that she is now out of pain, but one shouldn’t try to dredge sympathetic meaning out of the fact that someone died at an old age. That person is gone, and the physical absence hurts.
Avoid talking about “The Stages of Grieving.” This lays another huge trip on those in grief. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross never meant for her “stages” theory to be taken so literally in regard to bereavement, later writing that grief happens in its own time and fashion, and cannot always be tied up neatly. There are some great insights in Kubler-Ross’ work, but it just isn’t appropriate to saddle someone with the expectation that grief occurs in pre-defined stages, with an ultimate outcome of acceptance.
“Grieving is a process” also sounds absurdly cold and mechanical, and leaves no room for unexpected, spontaneous experiences of grief that do not conform to any preset theory, and may be surprisingly essential, somehow, in the way a person learns to live with his or her grief.
A phrase that I find annoying, if not especially inappropriate, is: “You have my condolences.” Why does this very common, almost universally accepted phrase, bother me? Because it is an abstraction, one step removed from an actual expression of sympathy. What are condolences? They are a statement that you wish to offer sympathy. So why can’t we just say, “I am sorry for your loss,” and thereby express sympathy directly? Why hide behind an intention to express sympathy instead of simply stating the sympathy itself? Would we say to someone on their birthday, “I express my intention to wish you a happy birthday”? Of course not. We would simply say, “Happy birthday.”
Be assured, however, that there are positive and effective approaches you can take when talking with those in grief..
It’s often okay if the wrong words come out at a funeral, memorial service, wake, or at any time to a person suffering intense grief. Though they may be most vulnerable to sympathy faux pas in the early days, months, and years of grief, most grieving individuals understand how hard it is for the rest of the world to be truly sympathetic. Most of them have been in your shoes at some point: they tend to cut slack to those who don’t know the right things to say. They tend to realize that you are trying your best, in your own way, to be helpful, and will accept the positive feeling behind the message.
So don’t struggle with your words. And if no words come out at all – just squeaks, perhaps – a hug or handshake can work wonders.
Sometimes, simple statements are the best. For example: “Margaret, I am so terribly sorry that Jim died, and I already miss him like crazy. I am sad for you, for the pain you may be feeling.”
Short, direct statements of support may be the easiest to swallow for those overwhelmed by loss and grief. Complex ideas may be confusing. Challenging concepts such as spirituality and philosophy should be avoided until such time as the grieving person expresses an interest in them. Early on, heavy thoughts may be too much to process – especially if he or she is so ruined by grief that even getting out of bed, going to the bathroom, dressing, or eating, seem inconceivable.
Probably, the only thoughts a person in the early days of grief can handle are whether to live or die, and wondering how to take care of the family when leaving the bedroom seems out of the question.
I have come across individuals who were so anxious about pressing their own opinions of grieving on me, in the guise of proving me support, that I almost ran away. Once, in a doctor’s office, a nurse’s aid who had learned of the loss of my daughter instantly turned the conversation around so that it was about herself and the loss of her distant relative. She babbled at a high speed about time-tables, getting over it, and moving on, and I felt trapped with her in the tiny exam room. Her words ran together unintelligibly in my mind. Was she just talking to fill some personal emptiness – to avoid facing the fact of her own impending death?
All I could think about was strangling her to shut her up, as Homer Simpson does to Bart. Had she given me a short and direct statement of sympathy, I wouldn’t have had the panic attack.
Basic statements expressing sorrow for the loss, accepting the grieving person’s sorrow, and offering support can be soothing.
Speak from the heart. A spontaneous expression of your own feelings, simply put, can provide genuine comfort. This may not seem an easy thing to do; in fact it may seem impossible, especially if you do not share the bereaved person’s sorrow over theirhis or her loss.
Here’s what to do. Look inside yourself to a time when you experienced a serious loss, and think about what you would have liked people to say to you – if anything. Remember how you felt when your father, mother, sister, brother, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, best friend, favorite teacher, or pet passed away. As you remember the terrible hurt of your own loss, it will allow you – sometimes suddenly – to feel genuine sympathy for the person with whom you are trying to communicate. You won’t feel what the sufferer feels, for grieving is unique to each person, but the sense of loss in general, and the feeling of real sorrow, will help guide you toward authentic expressions of caring support. It will even be reflected in your body language and thus unconsciously – or consciously – communicated to the person in grief.
If you can, look the grieving person in the eyes. But don’t force your gaze. If the person looks down or away, just realize that the intensity of your sympathy is too overwhelming to deal with at the moment, no matter how genuine and well expressed.
Do talk about the person who has died, if it seems appropriate. Often, family and friends of the bereaved are reluctant to mention the name of the deceased, either because they are afraid of bumming out the person in grief, or because it inconveniently reminds the person offering sympathy of his or her own mortality. But often, those who have lost a family member adore talking about them, and it hurts when their family and friends will not. Silence about a deceased loved one can seem almost as if others have erased that person from their pasts, that a significant life never existed.
If the grieving person/family seems able to listen for a moment, consider offering to do whatever you reasonably can to help.
“Sid, Janet is going to watch the kids for you and I’ll take care of the lawn.”
You may offer support in a variety of ways – buying groceries, walking the dogs, making yourself available at any time for a call – but be prepared to back up what you say. In some cases it might just be better to do some of these things; Judy and I will always be grateful for the neighbors who appeared out of nowhere during our tragedy and brought food, trimmed the palm trees, and gave us moral support. One large, muscular policeman stopped by just to give me a fierce hug – and we wept in each other’s arms! Feel out the situation and try to determine what sort of help to offer and/or provide – or not, depending on how the grieving party are feeling.
While there are phrases that should be avoided when speaking with those in grief, there are certainly ways of offering sanctuary at that very moment and showing caring support. There are many resources available, not just for the bereaved, but for caregivers and support workers, and the general public.
For more information, and to learn how to offer Sanctuary Anywhere, please visit the Friends Along the Road website.