What NOT to say to a grieving person

Humans have one thing in common: death. No one gets out of here alive. It’s just a matter of how and when. I’m no stranger to death. My grandparents have all passed and my mother crossed over suddenly and far too young. When I was a teenager far too many people I was very close to died.  During that time I saw many friends turn to drugs, alcohol and other addictions to deal with the pain. I turned to music and church and tried to focus the grief into understanding and transformation. It was hard and it is only by God’s grace that I’m not in a vacant alley with a needle in my arm or at the bottom of a bottle. When my mother died, my friend offered me vodka as a ‘toast’ to her memory. It killed the grief very quickly and I vowed I wouldn’t touch alcohol for a year. I’ve also seen people crawl into a dark cave and never emerge again. I lost a lot of friends over the years because they didn’t know how to treat a grieving person. Sometimes we say well intended things that simply make the situation more difficult. And because we’re trying to be polite, we won’t tell you how hurtful you are unintentionally being.  Hopefully, this can help someone be a better friend to someone who is grieving.

WHAT NOT TO SAY
You’ll get over it, someday. No. I won’t. I will get through it but the whole in my heart that is there everyday will never be filled. Every Christmas, birthday, holiday, graduation, wedding or life achievement, new friend, trip to someplace fun, I will be celebrating but I will also be silently crying that the my loved one is are not there to see it. Every joy will have a thread of sorrow.Her time was up. This doesn’t make it easier to get through. Nor does it take away the shock of losing someone. Life is not a stop watch where God sets the timer.

He was old, anyhow. It doesn’t make it easier to deal with. No matter how sick or old a person is when they die, one is rarely prepared for the shock that comes with it, no matter how much one prepares for it. Age has nothing to do with it. It has to do with loss and the sudden reality that a loved one has gone.

God needed another angel. God doesn’t need any more angels. God has enough already. This, however, does work on some four year olds experiencing the death of a loved one for the first time.

Everything happens for a reason. Yes, it does. But the reason is not yet clear to me, so reminding me there is a reason just makes me more frustrated that I cannot, yet, figure that out. This only exacerbates my frustration, anger and hurt over the loss of my loved one.  But when I do figure it out, I’ll let you know. Maybe. Because the reason might change in three months and then you’ll think I’m being immature in my grief.

You should go on a trip and get away from it all.  Why? It will just follow me and distract me from the grief work I need to do. That might involve crying myself to sleep, or it may involve sitting at the kitchen table re reading the same sentence in the book I’m reading for a few hours and not know it. Grief work might involve watching a mindless movie or writing everything down.

You’ll find someone else. I didn’t lose my iPod. I lost a boyfriend. And while that may be true, hearing that right now makes me feel pressured to be a lot of things I can’t do or be right now. If ever.

I know how you feel. Unless you have lost someone with the same relationship to you and died in similar circumstances, no, you don’t. And everyone’s grief is different. So as much as you would like to know how I feel, you don’t. And I know you’re just trying to be a good friend.

You’re a strong person. You’ll get through this. Yes, I might be strong, but right now I’m weak. I’m dealing with feelings that I can’t name or express. I often go between joyful memories to crying because a song came on the radio that reminds me of my loved one. I feel like I could crack at any moment and what’s worse is I don’t know how long this is going to last. Yes, I’m strong, but even the strongest people (Jesus for instance) was weak at the end of his life. And it is in that weakness I will find my strength.

Why are you avoiding church? Because the hymns are going to make me cry, and I don’t feel like singing praise music with tambourines. I feel like I’m living Psalm 6 or, everyone, in their good nature, is going to ask me how I’m doing. And I’m not ready to socialise with people yet. So, I’m not avoiding church, I’m just going to a different one for a few weeks where I can be a bum in a pew. And, I’m kinda a little bit mad at God right now. But that’s between me and God. And God’s love is bigger than my hurt but I need to figure that out for myself.

WHAT TO SAY
I’m very sad for your loss. That instantly makes me feel not alone and makes me want to open up to you.

I don’t know what you’re feeling, but whatever you are feeling you can express it with me. Thank you, because I don’t know what I’m feeling and I’m afraid if we go out to dinner I will cry and embarrass you and have a cry face the likes that ‘reality’ television has never seen. Crying spells come when you least expect them when you think you’ve got it all together.

I don’t know what you’re feeling, so can you explain it to me, and help me understand better, please? Thank you for wanting to know how I feel. I may not be able to put a lot of words on my feelings, but maybe I will show you with a song, or a walk, or maybe even screaming into a pillow. And thank you for giving me a safe space to do that and not be alone.

How can I be a better friend to you right now? Just asking that question has made you a better friend. Perhaps you can come over and just watch a movie with me. Or maybe you can help me pack up my loved ones things. Or maybe you can come over and have a spa date.

I’ve made some casseroles and all you need to do is heat them up. That is music to my ears, because although I don’t want to eat, I will need to eat and I won’t have the energy to cook for myself.

You can cry or laugh around me, anytime, anywhere, and I won’t judge you. Thank you, because when I’m in the kitty litter aisle with you and suddenly I feel guilty I had to give away my mother’s cat, I’m gonna cry. And thank you, because when I hear Grandma Got Run Over by a Raindeer in the store at Christmas and I bust out laughing it’s because I’m remembering my grandmother singing it during Christmas and it makes me happy.

Nothing. Sometimes no words are the best words.

OTHER NON VERBAL THINGS
Remembering the anniversary date is always very touching. Sending a card, a quick phone call or just “I know the anniversary of your ____ death is coming and I wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you.”

Giving space but not too much. Sometimes grieving people just need space but still want to feel connected.

Act normal. I recall the first time I laughed after my mother died. There was a small kitten on the inside of a cup with devils horns. It wasn’t even funny but I laughed for ten minutes solid until I was crying with tears. It was 5 months after. It was because I was with people who didn’t treat me differently. They allowed me to be me. And when I did laugh, they celebrated with me. They gave me the mug for Christmas that year and I have it as a reminder that laughter without guilt will come. And to embrace and rejoice when it does.

Accept the healthy changes in your friends.  Changes in tradition may come. Your friend is adjusting to holidays like Christmas or Easter and trying to find ways to honour these holidays in light of loss. Your friend may take up walking or a new hobby. They may get rid of a lot of things you didn’t think they would. Your friend is trying to transform their grief into something constructive and meaningful.  Take note of things like changes in alcohol or drug consumption, or, if your friend is not functioning well socially or other wise for beyond two years. Also take note if your friend is spending a lot of money or suddenly takes up shopping or collecting. Grieving people often try to fill the void with ‘stuff.’ If they do, just keep a silent note of it and look for patterns. Then, gently ask them what that is ‘about’.

Be helpful a few weeks and months after the death not just immediately. A lot of people will swoop in, make meals, do chores and be very kind…for about a month or less. Suddenly, the lovely caring things dry up after a few weeks. And that’s when life gets really messy because the grieving person probably won’t get their whits about them for a few weeks. That’s when we really need the support. And suddenly, now that we can quasi function, can remember things and have some order in life, there is no one there to help us do that. And we’re too shy to ask.

We have sanitized death and we avoid it as much as we can in our culture. We don’t talk about it and we try to hurry it up the funeral or the wake (if there is one).  There are cultures that spend their whole life preparing for death or have special groups of people who take care of the grieving.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There are ‘stages’ of grief that a person may or may not go through, or, may not be in the order you’ve read about. It’s a journey and a transition to the new normal that you figure out as you go along.

I hope these things are helpful to you as you help someone who has lost a loved one or if you have lost a loved one yourself. It’s ok to be timid in talking to your friends as they grieve, but, treat others how you would want to be treated. And if you’re grieving, honesty is the best policy. Express your needs as you know them. You’re helping yourself in the end. Plain and simple.

Blessings on the journey.

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