Why is it so hard to know what to say (also - what should I say?)


My dad was very sick in the summer of 2003 - he was waiting for a kidney and pancreas transplant and was not healthy enough for the surgery. He had a serious hospitalization in November and never recovered. He died in February of 2004 when I was 20 years old.

At the time, I was desperate for a peer to relate to, but felt that my situation was so unique that there couldn't possibly be other students going through a similar experience (news flash to 20-year-old-me...there were!). Since then, many friends, and my husband, have lost parents. It's not an unusual experience.

My dad. He died at 54 after living for 25 years with unexplained autoimmune related illnesses.

As others joined the dead parent club, I began to fancy myself as a sage on the matter. But, even though I know what it's like to feel deep loss, and how comforting it can be to connect to someone who can relate, each and every time a friend needed me, I would dread making the call. With the phone in my hand ready to dial, I would feel butterflies and get sweaty. I didn't know what to say. I was panicked because I felt like I should know what to say; after all, I had been there. Now, after the recent death of my sister, I've come to a freeing realization.  

There is nothing you can say to make them feel better.

Maybe that thought makes your stomach sink, but it's true. There are no words to relieve the pain of grief, and it's no one's job to remove the pain of grief. But what is incredibly important is for your friend/family member to know that you are there — to listen, to sit around silently, to run an errand, to hug, to watch mindless TV, to complain to. Follow their lead and do what they want to do. It is in our nature to try to right a wrong. Don't. Death, whether expected or unexpected, is a wrong that cannot be fixed.

What NOT to say

While it's true that you can't say something to make them feel better, you can definitely avoid some phrases that are almost guaranteed to make them feel worse. A good rule of thumb is to bypass anything that you'd find on a traditional sympathy card.  In the early days of grief, steer away from these fan favorites (even if you truly believe them):

    • Everything happens for a reason
    • S/he is in a better place
    • God wouldn't give you more than you can handle
    • May your memories give you comfort
    • He/She will always be with you
    • He/She is watching over you
    • Stay strong
    • It could be worse, at least..
    • God needed an angel or this is art of God's plan

Some of these statements assume you know the spiritual leanings of the bereaved, and unless you are 110% sure of their beliefs in the afterlife, it's best to avoid the subject.  

It's true that memories will eventually provide comfort for most, but many memories will likely be painful for most people until a certain amount of time has passed.

Lastly, don't remind the bereaved of difficult memories or graphic images unless they bring it up. For example, "I keep thinking about Janie's accident. I can't get the image of her wrecked car out of my mind," or "Fred was so sick when I saw him last, it really hurt me to see how his body wasted away," are thoughts best kept to yourself. 

Can't, Shan't, Won't - what DO I say?

At my grief groups, a parent shared a story of a sympathy card that touched them like no other. The first line read, "No! No! No!" This person was relieved to find someone who was willing to share the anguish that they felt for the loss of their  child. So many cards lean towards formality and stiffness. Don't be afraid to express your real emotions, especially if the bereaved is a friend or family member (basically anyone closer than an acquaintance).  

If you aren't sure what to say, it's ok to say so. I recently approached someone who had lost a child and in my babbling I realized that I was having a hard time matching my words to my sentiment. My speech was essentially incoherent. I stopped myself and told her, "I'm sorry if this is coming out awkwardly, I'm just trying to let you know how sorry I am." She touched my arm.  I think she knew that I felt so sad, and that seemed to be enough. Her daughter died in a tragic accident, there really aren't eloquent words to match what had happened, and sometimes confessing that you don't have the words is really the best thing to say. 

The sentiment in this Emily McDowell card perfectly describes what so many of us are feeling when we try to comfort a loved one.  This card in particular is one of the many we offer with our Compassion Packages.

When crafting your card or calling your friend, keep these points in mind:

    • Be sincere and share how you're feeling without overshadowing their grief
      • Sharing your pain in appropriate way: "Desi was such a positive light in my life. His humor brought me so much joy over the years. I will miss him terribly."

      • Overshadowing the bereaved's pain: "This is the saddest thing that's ever happened to me! I don't know how I will go on!"

    • Share a fond memory if you have one - especially if it's a memory the bereaved is unaware of

    • If you want to offer help, be specific.  If you can make a commitment, do it. 
      • Avoid (at all costs) 'call me if you need me' - this puts the burden of action on the person you are trying to help.  Instead say, 'I will bring you dinner next week', or 'I can watch the kids for you on Friday morning' and follow up on your offer. If you are in a position to offer ongoing support, tell the person. For example, "I am home every Sunday afternoon. I would love to have your kids every week so they can play with my son."

    To further explore these ideas and for other suggestions, check out Lucy Kalanithi's recommendations for condolence cards. Lucy's husband Paul wrote When Breath becomes Air.  

    Kate Bowler shares great advice from her mother (her interview starts around the 35 minute mark) that when you're in doubt you should narrate what's happening in your brain. For example, "I am shocked by this news that you've told me and I care so much about you and I don't know what to say." 

    Another great resource is Megan Devine, the author of It's OK You're Not OK.  This video is a great intro to some of the points mentioned above and further expands on uses of language and helpful support.

    Lastly, there's a whole book on how to support a friend or loved one who is going through a difficult time. This read on five ways to help a grieving friend is also very helpful. 

    Don't let your fear of saying the wrong thing stop you from saying anything at all.  It's better to say something awkward than to be silent. They will remember your silence, and even if you say something unhelpful, it will be clear that you care.

    PS - after you send a card you may be wondering if you should go to the funeral...you should. 

    (cover image from Emily McDowell Studios)

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