What Not to Say to Someone Who’s Grieving
A few months after my husband died, a friend said to me, “I’m glad you’re feeling better and moving on with your life.”
She meant well, but her remark made me acutely uncomfortable because grief still washed over me in waves at times. No way was I ready to move on, but my friend apparently thought I should be. Her words hurt.
Most of us feel awkward around someone who’s experienced a deep, personal loss. We want to offer comfort, but we don’t know what to say. It’s a situation we encounter often as we grow older, and we frequently blurt out the wrong thing.
To stem my own tendencies to do just that, I’ve acquired a list called “What Not to Say” from Good Grief, a New Jersey organization that offers peer support groups for bereaved parents and their children and for young adults. I talked to Good Grief’s executive director, Joseph Primo. A graduate of Yale Divinity School and a former hospice chaplain, Primo is the author of What Do We Tell the Children? Talking to Kids about Death and Dying (2013). He explained why some of the common remarks we make to those who are grieving can be problematic.
I know how you feel. The trouble is, you don’t, even if you’ve experienced your own loss. “No one knows how someone else feels,” Primo said. “Relationships are complex, and so are the feelings when one ends.” Besides, he continued, the statement doesn’t allow for dialogue—for the person who’s grieving to say, “This is what it feels like to me.”
Call me when I can help. Grief can be paralyzing, Primo explained. “I’ve heard so many people tell stories of how their days were just a total blur.” It’s unlikely the person will remember your offer of help and pick up the phone. Instead, he suggests, be clear about what you’re going to do. If you know that two Mondays from now, you can take Sue out for lunch, say so. Or say, “I’m going to call you in a week, and if you don’t answer or you don’t want to talk, it’s OK. I’ll keep calling.”
Often, when death happens, friends and family withdraw within a short time. “They’re hurting too,” said Primo, “and they may not be sure what to do with their own feelings or yours.” The result is silence and isolation. Reaching out and continuing to do that over time can make a difference, he observed, even if someone doesn’t reciprocate right away. They may not be ready but they’ll know you’re there for them when they need you.
He (or she) is out of pain. That may be true, said Primo, and the person you say it to may feel relieved that the suffering is over—but also may feel guilty about that sense of relief and devastated at losing someone dearly loved. Grief creates layers of easily triggered, conflicting feelings.
You have your whole life ahead of you or you can always remarry. Remarks that focus on the future and insist that everything is going to be OK discount the pain in the present moment. They’re hurtful, coming at a time when it doesn’t feel as if things will ever be all right again. It’s hard for someone who’s grieving to think about the future. “It’s something they have to be allowed to do in their own time and in their own way,” Primo observed.
Be strong. Telling someone to be strong denies the importance of what they’re going through. Primo is convinced grieving serves a purpose: it helps us develop the coping skills we’ll need to handle future losses. Yet those who are bereaved are often urged, as I was, to move on. Primo said, “There is no end date for grief. It’s an evolution, a lifelong experience that becomes more manageable as people develop their coping skills and find ways to live with their new reality.”
So what do you say to someone who’s grieving? I like this advice from Primo’s blog:
“Tell the bereaved that you care. Tell them and then show them that you're there if they need you, and that you'll be there for the long haul. Take the time to listen…offer a memory, and don't make assumptions or judgments. And when you're through with that, do it again and again until they tell you they don't need it anymore. Give them space and give them love.”
It’s been five years since my husband died. There are still times when something happens that would have intrigued or delighted him and I long to tell him about it. I feel his loss all over again. But the feeling passes, and I’m glad I’ve had it because it’s a reminder not only of what I lost but of what I had for many years.
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