It’s hard to know what to say to someone who is mourning a loss, but there are several things that we’d all very much appreciate if you’d remove from your “comforting words” list.
1) “Well, it could be worse. At least you weren’t farther along, I have a friend/sister/cousin who…” (insert a story of horrific loss here)
I can’t tell you how many well meaning friends messed this one up, but I’m pretty sure that anyone who has experienced a loss is well aware of all the even worse things that could happen.
Trust me, when we discovered we had miscarried at 13 weeks, I thought a lot about everyone I know who had lost a child at any age. I thought about all the many things that could still go wrong, even when we tried again. I thought about genetic abnormalities, missing body parts, another miscarriage, or worse. In fact, I’m now 22 weeks pregnant, and I still check for blood every single time I use the bathroom.
It’s not like I needed any reminders that a future ultrasound could reveal problems or that stillbirth and SIDS are real. For a while I couldn’t stop thinking about the friends I know who have had second trimester miscarriages, or the mothers who have lost their live children in infancy, or early childhood. And then there are the parents spending the night in the hospital praying for the cancer to die and for their sweet child to survive. I thought about drunk drivers and airplane crashes, chemical spills, bombs, cancer, and my aging parents… all of it.
Maybe I tend to obsess over the negative, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. And when I’m already freaking out about how unfair life is, that is not a good time to tell me a story about something even worse. What I need in that moment is a reminder that I’ll get through this and that there are beautiful things to focus on too, when I’m ready.
2) “I know exactly how you feel.”
Excuse me, but I’m a unique individual with my own fears, thoughts, and experiences. No matter how similar our situations might be, it’s practically impossible for you to know “exactly” how I feel. And even if it were possible, I think the sentiment you’re trying to get across here is, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Instead, by assuming you understand what I’m going through, you’re actually minimizing my experience and generalizing it to a whole group of other people who’ve gone through a “similar” loss.
Yes, it’s reassuring to know I’m not alone in my grief. But your loss is not equivalent to mine and pretending they’re the same doesn’t help me process my grief. What I’d really appreciate instead is if you could share your own personal story and then offer me empathy and understanding through curiosity and openness. Please listen to me, instead of telling me how I feel.
3) “You’re feeling better now, right?”
Grief is a very personal process. You have no idea what baggage I might be carrying around from my past. Or what other losses I’ve suffered. And since each person process grief in their own way and over their own time period, there are really no rules about how long it should take. Rushing someone through the process (if that were even possible) is not helpful. Instead, just let me know that you’re there for me if I need to talk and suggest something we could do together. Also, please get comfortable with my tears. There’s nothing worse than mourning a loss with a person who is squeamish about a few tears.
4) “I’m sure nothing like that will ever happen to you again.”
I’m sorry, but even you can’t predict the future. As much as this is meant to be reassuring, it just doesn’t ring true. We are all human and that means we’ll all have to experience some grief and loss in our lifetimes. We lose people we care about. That’s a part of life. It’s certainly not the fun part, but it is a necessary part. We form bonds and they are broken through a variety of circumstances.
I think that experiencing a loss can actually help us though. By recognizing how precious and fragile life can be, perhaps we can be more present and appreciative of the amazing lives we get to lead. Maybe we can actually stop to smell a flower, instead of rushing by as if we’ll have all the chances we’d ever want to smell that rose, or appreciate that sunset, or tell our loved ones how deeply we care about them.
5) “I’m worried that something like that will happen to you again.”
Again, as true as this might be, it’s not something you need to share with the person who is going through the grieving process. Talk to your other friends about your worries or concerns, but please allow me to slowly rebuild my trust in a benevolent universe, instead of burdening me with your concerns.
6) “Call me if you need anything.”
This goes into it’s own special category with statements like, “What can I do to help?” and “Is there anything I can do?” The truth is, there’s nothing you can do to take away the pain I’m experiencing. Sure, I appreciate the thought, but asking me to reach out in the midst of my sorrow or requesting a list of actions you can take that will “make me feel better” is just more work for me. And right now, I can’t do any work. Sure, stop by with a hug or a gift or send me a sweet text or heartfelt message, but don’t ask me to devise a way for you to help. I’m pretty sure you can figure that out for yourself.
So what CAN you say to someone who is grieving?
Here are 6 wonderful things to say to someone who has experienced a loss:
1) “I love you.”
2) “Would you like a hug?”
3) “It’s OK to cry…a LOT.”
4) “I’m so sorry for your loss”
5) “I’m bringing you take-out tonight, what do you want for dinner?”
6) “I’m here for you. Do you want to talk about it?” (then, just listen with an open heart)