Continuing the series of “Public Services Announcements” regarding grief, recall the first three:
#1: Time does not heal all wounds (March 22, 2021)
#2: When you lose someone you love it never goes away (April 3, 2021)
#3: We can welcome our experience of grief without welcoming the loss itself (May 5, 2021)
Consider #4: (When tragedy strikes…) There is no “right” thing to say (July 16, 2021)
This is a critical piece of understanding. Whether you are the one grieving, or supporting someone who is, there are no “correct” words to say. When my Daughter died in 1997, there was nothing that could be said to me that felt good or comforting. Even “At least she’s not suffering anymore” felt offensive. I couldn’t hear anything anyway as I think all my senses went completely numb for many months if not years.
Likewise, there was nothing I could say to help others feel better because they knew they were helpless. Alexis was gone, never to return. I couldn’t tell others “It will be ok” because I didn’t believe that. I couldn’t breathe for months, let alone try to console someone trying to console me.
The PSA here is that we can let ourselves and others off the hook where grief is concerned. Since there is no “right” thing to say, I suggest actions speak louder than words. Being present is the most valuable gift you can give someone who is grieving.
I also think, as the person suffering profound loss, we can allow others to “be present” even though we need to decide for ourselves, what level of their presence is comfortable. (In other words don’t say yes to things that don’t feel right and be mindful of setting your own boundaries.)
I don’t have intel about grief that will resonate with everyone, and that is not my intention. I can speak though, from my intimate relationship with loss and grief, and shock and horror that accompanied the deaths of my Daughter Alexis (1997) and Son Emanuel (2002). I can only speak to what I have learned, and share things that I wish I’d known, and/or others around me had known.
Being present to a person in grief is to be unattached to their wellness and recovery. Your presence is merely the symbol that life continues. Send cards, leave messages, and simply communicate “I’m here” in whatever form resonates with you. You don’t need to fix anything (you can’t) and you don’t need to make the person feel better (you won’t).
Since there are no right words to say, let’s upgrade our goal from “getting it right” (which sometimes paralyzes people to say nothing at all –don’t do that!- or causes them to run for the hills for fear of saying the wrong thing) to a goal of ”being consistently present“. If you are challenged, try communicating something like “I know I can’t fix this but I am here with you…” or “I can’t imagine what this is like, if you want to talk about it I want to listen” or “What are your days like?”
Asking open ended, caring questions that let your loved one know you need nothing FROM them, but you are there FOR them, is the closest we can get to saying the “right” thing to someone who is grieving. If that feels too difficult, try ”snail” mailing a plain card that says “I am thinking of you, it must be hard.”
And for those in grief, try to remember that people who say what may feel like the “wrong” thing need our grace and patience too. They are no more prepared or skilled to show up and navigate a tragic situation, than we are. Let’s generously assume they are trying, they care, and they don’t mean to communicate in a way that may feel bad to us. Try to receive the love without interpreting the form in which it is delivered.