7 Things Not to Say to a Grieving Person
- Thursday, January 09, 2014
“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."
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