Only three things are certain: change, death and taxes and there are countries where people don’t pay taxes at all and not just the parasitic billionaire class. That leaves change and death. As ubiquitous as death and grief are, we can still be at a loss for words when faced with them. One parent who lost both of his children in a car accident has some advice for us. Here are some things to say to a grieving person when you don’t know what to say.
“There are no words”
Don’t say there are no words. Yes, it’s overwhelming and so incredibly difficult to find the right words. Most of the things we want to say can feel trite and we can be afraid of saying something inappropriate and upsetting the people who are grieving. Still, all that statement, ‘there are no words’ does is kill any further conversation. This parent said what he and his wife wanted was to talk to someone. They wanted those conversations, they wanted to talk about how they were feeling. Sometimes they even wanted to talk about mundane things.
Talk about the deceased
People are often afraid of mentioning the dead person for fear of triggering the grieving person. That parent talked about how he and his wife desperately wanted people to talk to them about their children. They wanted people to say their names. They were already spending every second of every day thinking about their children, there was no way to trigger them by mentioning their names. If anything, all they wanted to do was talk about their kids. Hearing other people’s stories about their children gave them brief moments of joy even though they shortly went back to their overwhelming grief. Don’t be afraid to say their names.
Don’t try to relate
There’s this impulse to share your loss and previous grief when talking about your grieving process. Resist that impulse. Talking about your dead grandmother or your cousin who died six years ago is not helpful. Stop trying to relate to their pain because you can’t. Everyone’s grief even if somewhat similar to yours is uniquely theirs. Just listen to them, bear witness to their suffering and in this way offer them comfort.
This grieving couple found out that their friends would occasionally sneak off to the bathroom to cry, afraid that they would make them cry if they cried in their presence. The thing is, their relationship with crying had changed. They in fact welcomed it. Crying was a natural part of their day. Seeing other people cry gave them solace, made their own tears feel normal, and made them feel like they were grieving in community with others. It made them feel less alone. So cry.
Things to say and do
- I’m so sorry for your loss.
- I’m here for you, just a phone call or text away.
- Share favourite stories and memories of the deceased
- Acknowledge their grief, “I know it’s hard… I’m grieving with you.”
- Call them up or visit them to check on them
- Tell them you love them
- Let actions support your words with hugs, touch and crying with them. Drop off some food for them if you can.
Things not to say or do
- If you can’t attend the funeral, don’t say why. It will never be good enough
- Don’t try to distract them
- Be specific when offering help as in “What can I do to help you right now” instead of “Let me know if you need anything”
- Don’t say you know how they’re feeling. You don’t.
- Don’t try to be overly humorous or tell jokes
- Don’t try to encourage them what statements like “Hang in there” and “Be brave” etc. Just don’t. Let them be.
- No cliches religious or otherwise. That means no talk like “They are in a better place.” Just no.
Saying there are no words treats grieving as a taboo subject too sensitive to discuss openly. This covers it in an atmosphere of shame and guilt. Talk about it to normalize this suffering we will all experience if we haven’t already. Say their names, talk about them and cry publicly. Grieving in community beats grieving in isolation.
Relationships: Signs That You May Need Grief Counselling
Grieve However Your Heart Desires
Death & Preparation: Key Things To Do When Someone Dies In Kenya