Do you feel like that sometimes? You hear a friend has lost a parent, a spouse, a close family member, and you think: I don’t know what to say.
Join the club.
Since my mum died I’ve been seeing this so much – people not knowing what to say. And not just young people who haven’t had the experience – even people who are older, who have been through it themselves. Many people seem to be scared of saying anything.
My guess is that a lot of it is to do with being scared of saying the wrong thing, though I think there are also some misconceptions that come into it sometimes.
Some misconceptions that seem to be around:
- If it’s been a few months since the death then there’s no point saying anything now. (The truth is that grieving is a very lengthy process, and it’s quite hurtful to feel that people expect you to just get over it and move on already.)
- If the person who died was old, then it’s not such a big deal. (The truth is that loss is loss, and the only difference age makes here is that it makes the death a bit less shocking, less of a surprise, less outrageous – when someone young dies there’s the extra feeling of “this isn’t right, this isn’t supposed to happen”. But when someone old dies, you still grieve, you still miss them, you still have a sense of loss.)
- If you didn’t have a close relationship, then you won’t be grieving much. (The truth is that there’s more to family connections than just how often you spoke on the phone or whether you shared all your secrets. The loss is no less acute if you didn’t talk often – in fact sometimes this can even make it worse, as people struggle with guilt over not having kept in touch enough, or with “what if”s, and there’s the pain of knowing you can’t make amends if there’d been a row or some tension in the relationship.)
I remember having that “not knowing what to say” feeling at a relative’s funeral many years ago. Later on I told this relative’s partner that I’d felt awkward at the funeral and didn’t know what to say. “You could have said exactly that,” he told me, and I’ve cherished that important lesson ever since. Saying “I don’t know what to say” is saying something – it at least conveys that you’re not totally ignoring what’s happened, and it helps the person who has been bereaved in that you’re not inflicting on them one of the most hurtful things that people do inflict on the bereaved: silence, ignoring the subject as though it’s taboo, ignoring the person as though they’re pariahs.
Saying “I don’t know what to say” is ok if you really don’t know what to say. But there are some stock phrases that are useful – like “I was sorry to hear about your loss/your [insert family connection]”, or just “my condolences”. When it’s very recent, emotions are likely to be pretty raw and the bereaved person isn’t likely to have much spare energy for listening to a lot anyway, so keeping it short is generally helpful. If you’re sending a card, don’t expect them to be up to reading a long spiel – it’s the gesture that matters, it helps to know that someone has bothered to send a card, and it’s a tangible reminder that someone cares. And if you meet them face to face or if you phone, you can say something brief and leave it to them to talk more if they want to.
One of the really helpful messages I had when my mum died was from a local friend who emailed and said: is there anything I can do? would you like me to pop round? I found it extremely helpful that she made such an open offer – “is there anything I can do” acknowledges that you don’t know what the other person might need, you can’t guess, and so you ask. They may need help with something practical. Maybe there’s a parcel that needs to be collected from the post office, maybe their dog needs walking and they’re not up to facing the world out there, maybe they’re out of milk. But maybe they could do with a visit, a friendly face and a chance to talk – and even then, take your cue from them as to what sort of conversation they’d like. They might want to pour their heart out, but equally they might really need distraction. There is no clear-cut formula. So just ask.
I also find it really helpful when people see me and say stuff like “I was sorry to hear about your mum” or “I haven’t seen you since your mum died, how are you?” in a voice that tells me they care and they’re willing to really listen and show empathy. Being able to just talk about it now and again is so so so helpful. The emotions are there, and they need to come out once in a while. What prompted me to write this post this evening was that I had that experience – it’s nearly five months now, and I saw someone in church this evening who did that and gave me the opportunity to talk about how it’s been, about how it hits you now and again out of nowhere… She is someone who knows what it’s like, she has been through it – it seems like there’s this kind of solidarity of those who know…
So these are things I’ve found helpful. Now for some of what I’ve found unhelpful and even hurtful:
- Top of the list is when people say nothing – when they see you soon after your bereavement and you know that they know about it and they don’t say anything. When it’s recent and raw, it’s like you’re walking around with a gaping wound and it’s just appalling to have people speak to you as though everything is normal, not acknowledging this big gaping wound. But apart from the total ignoral, which is seriously the worst, there were some things people did say (either face to face or in written messages) which I found hurtful:
- How old was she? 94? Oh, that’s not so bad then. (Thanks for the huge empathy. Brilliant. This is my mother you’re talking about, and she’s dead.)
- You must focus on the happy memories you have of her. (1. Please don’t boss me around. Bereavement has different stages, and I’ll do the happy memories stage when I’m ready for it, not when you tell me to. 2. What if I don’t have happy memories of her?)
- I know you were very close. (No, you don’t. My mother and I weren’t very close. Please don’t project your own family relationships onto me.)
- I remember how I felt when my own mum died and… (This isn’t the time. Later, when I’m feeling a bit more like my usual self, I’ll be ok with that. But when it’s fresh and raw – no, please don’t burden me with your own experiences and memories.)
- She’s in a better place. (Obviously different people will have different reactions to this, depending on their beliefs. I’m a follower of Jesus and he said he is the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through him. And my mum was not a believer in Jesus. The pain of not having that assurance about where she is now – that pain is something I shall have to live with for the rest of my life, just as I’ve lived with this pain about my sister since she died. So hearing such unfounded platitudes from people is seriously unhelpful.)
I’m writing this in the hope that some people may learn from it and be able to navigate this minefield better. It is a minefield, because you’re dealing with people who are going through very difficult stuff emotionally and you can’t know exactly where they’re at – what stage of bereavement are they going through right now, what sort of stuff might this particular person find helpful right at this moment. Different people react differently, and even the same person can react differently on different occasions – this is my third loss of immediate family and each time it has been different for me.
So, bear in mind that it’s very painful and that it’s so very variable, and remember: don’t assume you know what they’re feeling, don’t assume they’re ok now because enough time has passed, don’t assume that it’s not so painful because of age/ill health/not such a close relationship/etc, don’t assume you know what they need – leave it very very open to the bereaved person to indicate what they need from you. Just give them a sign that you care, let them know you’re there, and be as undemanding as you possibly can, especially early on.
Oh, and don’t expect to make everything alright. You’re not superman/superwoman. Just be there to the extent that you can. If all you can do is send a card or an email, do that – these small gestures really really help. But seriously, I can’t stress enough: keep it short. Bereavement can be exhausting.
Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know what to say”. Also, don’t be embarrassed to use stock phrases like “my condolences” or “I was sorry to hear” – these phrases work just fine.
Just don’t give bereaved people the silent treatment. It’s painful enough without feeling like everyone is scared of talking to you.
Oh, and one last thing: death happens. Can we please not pretend it doesn’t?
p.s. Those parenthetical bits I put in my list of unhelpful stuff – those are the sort of reactions I had at the time, that’s how it felt then, when I was very recently bereaved and very very hurting. Of course I know those people meant well, and looking at some of those cards now – now that I’m several months on in the process and my emotions are less raw – I don’t feel anywhere near as strongly. But I wanted to try and help you understand how it comes across.