Grief Public Service Announcement:
#4 of 10: “There is no right thing to say.” Click here for original post.

A quick recap:
GPSA #1: Time does not heal all wounds.
GPSA #2: When we lose someone we love they never go away.
GPSA #3: We can welcome the experience of grief without welcoming the loss itself.

Sometimes the public service announcements in this grief series focus on how to support someone who is grieving. Others have a stronger target audience of people who are actually grieving and suffering right now. This PSA is directly applicable to both the supporter, and the actual griever. Which means this “truth” can reach a lot of people and is literally relevant to grief supporters, and also, grievers which qualifies just about everyone.

A recently published podcast episode on The Healing Path (click here) stressed the importance of keeping an open mind. There was a discussion about how open mindedness is not valued in our culture, and that “knowing it all” seemed to be higher on the Western culture virtue list than staying open. This cultural constraint turns grievers upside down, and isolates us.

The idea that some people “know it all” and we should strive to be like them, goes sideways when we lose someone we love. Because we realize in literally one instant, that our life as we knew it has ended. And since we have never lived without our loved one before, we literally know nothing about this new world.

So our solitary suffering is compounded by the reality that while me may be excelling in our careers, communities, financially or physically we are absolutely naïve and un-knowledgeable about our unexpected new reality. Since our culture shames a lack of knowledge about anything, we allow very little of our experience to arise within us, and allow even less, to see the light of day around others.

We are scared and we button everything tightly, because we are in unchartered territory AND we know its not popular to look unprepared, so we hide. It can take a long time for us to choose NOT to hide. And we may not get there in this lifetime and that is ok.

But know, that if you are grieving, or supporting someone who is, there is no RIGHT thing to say in response to loss.. People will stumble over their words, in writing, verbally, in messages and in conversations. Or worse, they and we, say nothing and stay locked in silence.

We don’t actually want to do the latter staying locked in silence because we know that choice doesn’t end well for anyone. But we don’t want to put our foot in our mouths and say the wrong thing. For example, I am fascinated to recall that when my children died I was so concerned with everyone else’s well being, I never allowed my own experience to surface. People felt uncomfortable, intimidated even, because the unthinkable had happened to their friend.

So here is the good news, and the point of this Grief PSA: We can all make the process of grief a little lighter by calling out the fact that there is nothing to say, or do for that matter to “help” someone feel better, or be better. And there is nothing that we grievers can say to help our loved ones support us more profoundly.

But there is action. When someone you love is hurting, we can carry out the action of naming the obvious, which might look something like:

“I am sincerely sorry this has happened to you, I wish there was something I could say to help, but I know there isn’t. So instead, just know that I am here when you want to vent, cry, eat a hot fudge sundae or take a walk.”

Authenticity is the love engine that powers this type of compassionate action. So we need to be still with our own feelings also, to allow the clarity of what we want to convey, to actually arise. So its mostly a fill in the blank statement, with the one common thread of surrender:

“I wish there was something I could say but I know there isn’t.”

Understanding this, AND saying it out loud or in a card or a text, takes both the griever and the supporter off the hook. Because when we are in deep grief we already know there is nothing to say. Calling it out levels the playing field and instead of looking around for help, we simply say:

“This sucks, this is not my choice, but I am not going to tell you its ok, because it is not. And since there is no right thing to say, let’s not try to get it right. Let’s just try to stay present to one another, sharing in the surrender of knowing that words do not help us much where grief is concerned.”

And a second action we can pursue, in addition to acknowledging there is no right thing to say, is to move into being present to that person. Our senses are all so dulled when we are hurting, that sometimes we can’t hear, feel or see anything. But if you are sitting next to me and we are talking about the weather, at least I can experience a few moments of “not-alone-ness.”

This can look like an experience I had a few years back, when a close friend’s child died suddenly. Protecting all privacies, I will say that my heart was broken for my friend, because I know the terrain of burying a child and how impossible it is to navigate. I knew she was now on this journey too. I knew there were no words. I knew her body was there but it was empty.

So instead, I leaned in and whispered, “I know there is no right thing to say, but I will stay by your side, now and always. You are not alone ever.  I love you. I am here.” And that was it.

I didn’t try to sugar coat it or say it will be ok or reference one of the few “acceptable phrases” we proclaim when someone dies, such as:
1. Everything happens for a reason.
2. This will get easier.
3. At least she/he is not still suffering.
4. God only gives you what you can handle.
5. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I just called it out: No one knows what to do now, so don’t feel isolated or alone if that is the case. I won’t leave you alone in your grief. And THAT, is one of the most loving gifts we can give ourselves and others. Because very few people have any words at all, to express grief until they are run over by it. And when we are recovering from being hit by an 18-wheeler, we are not usually in a state of mind to take up a new language.

So we have this loving, blanket statement which puts all of our hearts on the same side of this pain, as well releases us both from having to fix anything. We can’t anyway. So why not take the pressure off and tell it like it is?

If inspired, try this if someone you love is hurting, especially if that someone is YOU. Let others know “Thanks for supporting us, there is nothing for anyone to say at this point” and open to the concept that since there is no right thing, even people saying those “acceptable” phrases mean well. And we can choose to brace against inappropriate commentary, telling ourselves how wrong that person is. OR we can choose to open to the loving intentions, behind those words. Let them off the hook. And let ourselves off the hook.

When grief turns lives upside down, the best thing we can do is forget about words and focus on action. Call out the fact that there is nothing to say. Then, SHOW your love, presence and support by consistently showing up for that person, continuing to invite them for coffee every month or so, let them know you are taking a walk today and ask if they would they like to go too, and send simple messages and cards with the emotion of love, not the goal of fixing.

Let’s try to agree that words won’t cut it when it comes to grief. Let’s move toward taking the action needed to carry this person forward, including ourselves, until they/we begin to wake of up from the trance of pain. Because until that slow process starts moving, we can’t hear, think or remember anything anyway.

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