Someone asked me yesterday what to say to someone who has experienced loss. I started to write back but it ended up being too long and so I’ve moved it here….and then it grew.
A few weeks ago I was with someone who had just lost a family member to a long drawn out illness. I wasn’t sure what to say and ended up at some point asking if they were going to be cremated or buried. I wanted to take it back as soon as I said it thinking: Is it okay to ask that? Probably not, you never know these days. I guess what I didn’t expect is that my question opened up a floodgate of conversation. In the end I was glad I asked it, and mostly I was glad that the family was understanding and gracious of the question in the first place.
I think sometimes when we have the most noble intentions, we end up trying too hard…..or we don’t try at all. We pretend to understand what someone is going through, as if all grief and suffering can be packed into a nice little “same” package. I used to do one of two things when I heard something bad had happened to someone:
1. Avoid contact.
2. Steal a cheesy line from a sympathy card.
When my dad died I didn’t want to hear that my dad was in a better place. I didn’t want anyone to pretend everything was just business as usual. I didn’t want anyone to come and hold on too tight. I didn’t want to pray with anyone. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. That’s a huge obstacle course for someone to navigate. With all those rules how could anyone possibly know what the right thing to say is? And everyone has their own rules. So what do we say? I think we just say something. Anything. Sometimes all it takes is to just acknowledge that something crappy happened. I got so much comfort in the most simple of words from strangers and friends:
I’m so sorry about your father. I’m at a loss for words.
I don’t know really know what to say. I suck at things like this.
I’ll just drive by and beep hello so you know I was there.
Here are some cookies.
I heard what happened.
None of those sentiments were profound. But they were all perfect. Cookies too.
Things I’ve recently said in response to someone that had something crappy happen:
Mother F. Why?!
Is this a joke? It’s not a joke? (insert crying)
Life is ridiculous.
I have muddy buddies in my purse. Want some?
I have a funny book for you.
Ok so none of those were taken from a sympathy card. They aren’t even in the same universe of profound. Sometimes I just want to crawl into a hole after I open my big mouth. I think the important thing is that I tried. I opened a door. I remember when I first told a stranger that my dad died on a flight back from Korea. Somewhere above Russia. The person replied: Gosh, I’m so sorry. So…um….what happens when someone dies on a plane?” It was a weird question, but when I stepped back for a minute and faced the reality of it all I could put myself in the stranger’s shoes. We talked about it for a long time. Afterwards I was truly grateful for his genuine interest.
Quote from the book:
Stitches: A handbook on meaning, hope, repair
I think there is healing in genuine interest. A simple curiosity in others. It doesn’t mean you have to ask cremation or burial? It doesn’t even mean you have to ask a question. I get asked all the time: are you going to have more children? I know this hits a nerve with many people who struggle with infertility. Some might think it’s nosy and inappropriate, but I see people just trying to connect. How else will we truly connect with others unless we ask questions? Yes some questions make us uncomfortable, and yes they make us relive painful things, but at least they asked something.
I’ll never forget when Boo was 2 years old and we were on an overbooked plane. Everyone was cranky and tense. She stood up and peered behind us only to spot a man with an eye patch at which point she yelled at the top of her lungs:
LOOK! A PIRATE!
I was mortified. The people around me were mortified. After a long uncomfortable silence, the man with the eye patch yelled back:
I mean really?! How awesome was that guy. And gracious. He set the tone for the whole flight…except for a while Boo thought every person she saw with an eye patch was a pirate.
On the other hand, when I was in chemotherapy, one of the patients had a friend visit from overseas. He was missing an arm and I assumed he was in the military and had lost a limb. When he left the room I asked his friend, “How did he lose his arm?” And the friend said “He was a Thalidomide baby” but in a “duh-you-should-know-this” tone. Two women sitting across from me nodded like they understood and glared at me as though I was an idiot. I had no clue what a Thalidomide baby was. And so I just nodded and crawled back into my own little space, not connecting with anyone. Later I got out my laptop and looked it up: in the late 1950s and early 1960s, more than 10,000 children in 46 countries were born with deformities as a consequence of thalidomide. I was only curious to know his story, but the reactions to my question scared me into retreat, they left me feeling like I’d obnoxiously yelled “LOOK! A PIRATE!!!” And for a while I found myself trying to avoid eye contact with people missing limbs, feeling ashamed of my curiosity.
When people used to ask me if I was a stay-at-home mom I usually said “Yes….but every once in a while I do go to the bank or grocery store. Sometimes, when I don’t want to get in to the whole story, I use humor to deflect. Are you going to have more children? Maybe….if the value on the black market goes up. And a wink never hurts either so that they know I’m not being a total smart ass. If someone asks an insensitive question, I think it would be worse to send them away feeling bad. I think that says more about me than them.
My 2-year-old niece Coco was here the other day and as she followed me into my bedroom she said in the most brilliant matter-of-fact way:
I like your bed.
I like your medicine.
I like this lotion.
I like your doggy.
I like this table.
She went on and on and on. She liked everything. I felt like the most important person in the world.
We don’t have to be great orators to show someone we care or that we see them. All we have to do is reach out just a little, right? Empathy is not feeling for someone, it’s feeling with someone. And I guess the most important thing is if someone happens to say the wrong thing to you….cut them some slack. At least they tried.
I like simple:
How are you?
I like your doggy.
I like this table.
Can I help?
I’ll beep so you know I was there.
Here’s a cookie.
Thank you for sharing this. A lot of people don’t know what to say. When my husband passed away 3 years ago, many friends and family withdrew from us because they didn’t know what to say. And even my 10 year old daughter was told a month after her dad died, “you still want to talk about that, aren’t you over it yet?” The fact is many of us want to talk about our loss and sometimes just showing interest and allowing us to talk makes us feel better. Thanks again.
I was a widow at 38 with 4 children ages 11 to 19…. And what hurts more than A seemly awkward question…is for people to say nothing… Or like dawn said.. Expect you (and the children) to be “over” it. I know for us there was and is healing in talking about him. Healing in remembering…even when it hurts. To get through it…you have to walk through it, feel it.
When a friend passed away years ago, I remember being so afraid to go to his house and see his family. Then, when I did, I was so happy that I did. I didn’t have to say anything to them. I just hugged them and I listened…or at least I tried to. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of loss in our group of friends, but I have found that just sitting with people we love and not talking is just as effective as offering sympathy…and food…lots of food.
Our family has faced great loss including our 7 yr old Grandson and 26 yr old Daughter, both to cancer within 16 months of each other. What I know is: You DON’T know, you just don’t. So it is much more kind and loving not to act as though you do, you don’t need to tell me what to feel or how & when to ‘heal’. If you don’t look at me or say anything it feels like you are negating not only this huge ball of anguish & suffering of mine but the entire lives of these two strong amazing people who are still here with us every day, every moment.
What has helped are ones that hold my hand, that ask, ” Does it help or hurt today to talk about —-” Because every day is different. And one year, two years is very likely the same kind of pain as 1-2 months, or worse, with the loss of a child at least. And it is so lonely and isolating this kind of grief, so please, talk to me, sit with me, hold my hand. Don’t forget my reality won’;t be the same again, until our Hope is realized, but our loss is Now, and we need so badly, NOW, comfort and validation of the enormity of this loss. Thank you Ashley for opening a forum where I could safely express this.
Lynn Osborne says
I used to feel really guilty if I didn’t send a sympathy card right away when someone died. If I didn’t send it within a week or 10 days, I often wouldn’t send it at all, feeling like a heel for not doing it right away. However, after my dad died I received a few cards a month or more after he died. I actually appreciated those cards a lot, because so many of my friends had already “moved on” and didn’t ask about how I was doing after that much time. When I received those “late” cards, I realized that friends did still care and even if their lives were really busy right at the time of death, they were still thinking of me and cared enough to send the card.
Thank you I really needed this so very badly.
You should be the next author for “An Idiot’s Guide To Helping Others Cope With Loss.” And that’s a compliment! I wholeheartedly agree that simplicity and sincerity of response are the best! LOVE the pirate story. I bust a gut!
Such a great post!! I am a total avoider and would never say anything about anything awkward to avoid my self feeling awkward! Last year a good friend of mine lost her father in law. I knew her husband was very close with his dad and I didn’t really know him well but I knew it was a big deal. Well one night I saw them out at a restaurant with his mom too and I put on my big girl panties and walked over and said “I’m so sorry to hear about your dad Matt!” The whole table just stared at me with a death glare!! I was so confused so now I never know what to say?? I felt awkward and then I was almost mad later that they were so weird about a simple sorry.
I love reading all your posts! Your little girl is so funny! Kids do the most awesome stuff!
Beth in AZ says
This touched my heart…i LOVED the pirate story. I will have to tell my pilot DH that one! Those people with the uncomfortable comments are everywhere…They are probably the same people who hounded me when we adopted a son from Korea; What language will he speak?, So, you’re married to some Chinese guy?…and the best? Do you love him less than your OWN children? (uhm he IS my child, I was just not fortunate to be able to birth him!) oh..and I forgot: anything that has to do with the phrase ‘REAL MOTHER”
I try to be polite, but the lady with the language question almost tried to fight me!
Thank you for this post! I have been wondering what to do about my neighbors. One of them literally dropped dead on Sunday morning, collapsed unexpectedly and was gone … leaving behind a husband and three grown children. We watched it all unfold Sunday morning, from the emergency responders to the undertakers taking her away. They’re a tough bunch of people, kind of gruff and rough around the edges. And I’m shy. I’ve talked to them before, though, and their bark is worse than their bite. But grief does things to people and I don’t want to intrude. I’ve been wondering when to go over with some soup or cookies and say “I’m sorry.” I keep thinking, “it’s too soon” or “they’ll have too much food already” and on and on. I just don’t want to do the wrong thing. In my heart, I know the only “wrong thing” is to do nothing at all … you confirmed this. Thank you!!
Heather D says
Advice that’s simple and profound, as usual.
My husband and I have been trying for children for many years now. I used to take offense when people asked if/when we were going to have any, but in recent years, I see that they are just trying to make conversation. I have the opportunity to show them grace and love in my answer and not make them feel like they’ve just inserted their foot into their mouth. I’m learning. Very slowly. =)
Such wonderful advice. My go to for bad news is always, “Oh, that sucks” or “I’m sorry to hear that.” I want to say and do more, but really, I am terrified of causing them more pain.
I LOVED the pirate story. Kids have a wonderful way of bringing out the best in some people.
And making people food. Cookies, a casserole, a simple salad. Anything to remind them they need to eat, but that they don’t have to make themselves.
I have rewrote this about a hundred times but I will try my best to put it into the right words. I know everyone feels differently about being asked what happened to your ____? You see my daughter was born without part of her lower arm and with one beautiful finger. We have always been very open about it and are ok with people asking us about it. Especially when kids ask because once they know they usually go off and go play together. We have had to deal with grown ups and kids not being nice about it which breaks my heart to say the least. I would rather have someone ask than stare and whisper. We have talked a lot about it with my daughter and given her the words to use and she knows she can always come to us if someone won’t let it be. It is something she is going to have to deal with her whole life and so we have tried to prepare her for it. I guess that is how I feel about someone asking about my daughters arm. I hope all that makes sense!
Your post couldn’t have come at a better time. Just got a call from my best client, who is distraught because her father is in congestive heart failure, and now she has to pack up all the orders, shunt them over to me (and hope that I can ship them out completed for her), pack up her two small children, put her dog in a kennel, and fly up to be with her father – who refuses to admit that anything is wrong. I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for her – the only thing I could think of to say was “How can I help?”
I’m hoping when I get there to pick up the orders, that it was the right thing to say. Because I know she needs something – and everything – right now.
Thanks for posting this – and have a Blessed Christmas.
Marsha Stevens says
Thank you so musch for the beautiful post. You touched my heart. I have been following your blog for quite awhile now. You have been through so much and have so much heart and soul yourself. I wish the very best in life for you and your familly. Thanks for reaching out to others.
Have you seen this?
It’s so true, making an effort is what people need. Sometimes it’s not the right way, but they are trying and it matters.
Love love love….was just talking to a friend yesterday about this topic. My Dad died while I was pregnant and the flood of emotions were huge! It was amazing what people said, and didn’t say. Loved every word of this!
Beautiful post! When my father died, the most comforting comments to me were the ones that shared memories of my father. Especially the ones where he could laugh, as my father was a rather unique character. Or, for people who didn’t know him, comments that just let me know they were thinking of me or praying for my comfort. The comments that were the hardest for me to respond to were the ones where people told me how I would be feeling. I know they were just expressing empathy based on their own experiences with loss in their lives, but everyone’s relationships and grieving processes are unique. My response to my daddy dying at hospice was to drive home and sit in my quiet house with a glass of wine and think, “Good for you, daddy. You did it, and you did it on your own terms.”
Lisa | Happy By says
I’ve been thinking about this topic lately. I was at the hairdresser and one of the girls working at the salon was chatting with me. At some point she told me how she had to leave everything behind in Italy (house, work, life) and come back to my country because she lost her big sister. Of course I felt bad, for so many reasons, but I was still far far away from her true story and pain. All I said to her was “I’m so sorry! You should take all the time you need” (because she said nobody around here understands what I went through and they expect me to act all normal). Deep down I wanted to ask her if her sister was happy already and if she had lived the way she wished. I know, such a big question for people I didn’t even know. Maybe she would have appreciated it, but still, it was too much. Actually, this is the best thing I came up with while thinking for such cases. It’s good, but it’s deep. It could create a positive path or a worse feeling.
Thanks for making every word/phrase an acceptable option Ashley. Although people are not always that selfless and careful to accept everything generously, with a joke and a wink, it could help so much…
O Sweet Ashley , You have brought up so many emotions about your father’s death. I cried as I read it and realized, too,that I have a terrible time responding to someone who is grieving. In retrospect, I think a comforting word to me was, ” i am so sorry for Norman’s death and what can I do to help?” I always answered to pray for me, our children and friends for us to feel the comfort only God can give to fill the horrible vacuum.
God is so true to His word and in time our soul and spirit are healing! I was hurt when friends and acquaintances just ignored his death. I realized they did not know what to say; so, I usually made a comment about praying for us and it opened up a dialogue that led to some comfort for both of us.
You are a gift from the Lord to be able to express these words that so many of us can’t express. We love you eternally….your loving and very grateful mom
I lost my grandmother, father and great-grandmother all within 2 1/2 years when I was very small. I was very close to my great grandmother and her loss being the first, hit me very hard. My father was next and as I was only 6 and it was November, it hit the family very hard. I wasn’t very close to his mother, so when she died it was just one more funeral to go to after having lost so much all ready.
One of my teachers made an announcement over the PA asking the other students and staff to offer a moment of silence and prayer for my father when he died and all it did was serve to bring all the bullies out to the play-yard. I was inundated with dozens of children all surrounding me and asking taunting questions about my father. These were intended to remind me of my loss and were deliberately cruel. I cried for hours and remember nothing but pain for months after – to the point where I was numb to death at the age of seven.
Now I have trouble relating to what others deem as a sad loss. I cannot cry at funerals, in fact I am the rude one who will make a joke or snicker at something the officiant might say if I can hear the person who died in my head making fun of it. I have gotten beyond my own desire to hold on to everyone forever.
It may have been cruel and it may sound harsh, but the earlier and more roughly you deal with death the more logically and calmly you can deal with it later. I find those that face death or face a great tragedy will come through with a lot more strength in dealing with similar situations. Now, no matter how much I love someone I know that there may be a time when they will have to live without me or I will have to live without them. This lets me see that things like assisted suicide for the terminally ill or suffering are not cruel, but humane. I mean everyone can agree that keeping a very sick pet alive is unethical, but heaven help us if grandma gets sick…she’ll just have to wait.
The only thing I ask if someone has lost a loved one is “Did they have a good life?” This keeps the person focused on the accomplishments of their friend/family instead of their own loss. Death only affects the living. Many times reminding someone that their loved one had a good life keeps the focus off their own sense of loss and helps them to be thankful for the time they had.