While death and loss are completely inevitable, being the most natural aspects of life, we seem to clam up when we see a loved one grieving. If you’ve lost someone, there’s no doubt that you’ve heard some of the same phrases over and over again from people who want to help, but some of those well intended statements can be pretty ignorant and pretty damaging. Grief is a heavy and confusing aspect of loss, and people seem to walk around the grieving as if on egg shells. What your grieving friend absolutely does not want is for you to pity them. They don’t want to hear the same statement you say to anyone who has lost someone, they don’t want you to try to find a silver lining, and they don’t want you to become awkward as you search for the perfect thing to say. Here’s the thing – NOTHING you say will take that loss away or fill the void that they’re likely feeling. What they DO want is for you to be genuine and real with them. You may not know what to say, and that’s okay. Depending on how deeply that loss cuts, their grief may live within them like a wound that will never fully heal for the rest of their lives. Grief isn’t some clean process with easy to follow stages – it’s never-ending. An amazing analogy went viral not long ago that perfectly explains grief – imagine a room with a pain button and a ball. The pain button never changes. The ball may grow bigger and smaller, ebbing and flowing over time, hitting that button more of less depending. No matter how much time has passed, though, the amount of pain felt when that ball hits the button does not change. That’s grief. We may feel less often, but we do not feel less. To offer support, you HAVE to get comfortable addressing the gaping hole they will always feel from this point forward.
Here’s a guide of sorts to help –
What not to say:
They’re in a better place. Yes, you believe that to be true. The person you’re speaking with may possibly also believe it’s true, maybe not. However, no matter the circumstances of the loss, hearing that may be invalidating to their feeling of emptiness. They’d rather their loved one with them, happy and healthy and may not be ready to hear this yet. Let them come to this conclusion on their own at their own pace.
You must feel….(insert anything). No matter what their feelings are, those feelings are valid and acceptable. Slapping a label on what they should be feeling can promote shame and guilt if they aren’t feeling said emotion.
Stay home until the funeral and then come back to work/school afterward – you’ll feel better then and can get back to normal. Grief isn’t like getting a cold – you don’t stay home and then come back to work or school all better in a few days. Some people feel like they need to throw themselves into work or school in those first beginning days – they’re in shock. They may feel like if they stay home, they will become consumed by their pain and need to stick to their routine to survive it. They may need to stay home with family for several days and process what has happened. Neither is wrong. Either way, though, they will absolutely NOT simply feel better in a few days. Remember – grief is a pain that doesn’t end. Their normal doesn’t exist anymore – there isn’t anything to get back to. They have to create an entirely new normal.
Look on the bright side. There actually isn’t a silver lining to everything. Sometimes, things just suck. Attempting to put a positive spin on what they may perceive as an utter tragedy can be extremely invalidating.
Oh wow, I’m so sorry. You may be sorry to hear that – that’s okay to feel. What can they really say to that, though? It’s okay? It really isn’t okay. Thank you? There’s not a right answer and can potentially make them feel uncomfortable as they don’t know what to say. They may feel pitied by you. We’re all guilty of this one, but it isn’t an empathic response.
What to say:
I really don’t know what to say right now. If you don’t know what to say (because, remember, nothing you say can really change anything for them) tell them that. Have that upfront honesty with them – they’ll appreciate it.
Ask them what they need at that moment. There are a lot of mixed emotions with loss. We want to remember them fondly. We also feel pain when we are reminded of the loss. Sometimes they need to laugh, other times they need to cry. Sometimes they may even need to feel angry. They may need a distraction away from it completely, or they may need to let it all out. Your support can change based on their needs at that moment.
However you’re feeling is alright. Assure them that all of their feelings (or lack of feelings) is acceptable. They aren’t supposed to feel anything in particular. It can feel wrong to be experiencing anything but sorrow – it can feel like a dishonor to their lost loved one. Having some validation that none of their feelings of wrong can provide comfort.
I know this is hard. Let me know if you need anything. I’m here. This way, you can open that door of communication, and they can simply walk through at their own pace.
Sit in silence with them. Literally…don’t say anything. You can offer the support without contributing to the chaos. With so many people rushing to their rescue, it can feel pretty overwhelming. It may feel nice to have that friend or family member that gives them their space until they’re ready.
Your job isn’t to solve the problem – it’s simply to be there. Engage in some vulnerability, and open that dialogue. Together, we can #endthestigma