What to say
You can’t fix this. You can’t take away their pain. You can be with them in the midst of their pain, and that might be the greatest gift you can give.
We can’t tell you what to say. We don’t know your person or the situation. But you do, and you know the relationship you have with them.
Words that can be helpful:
- How are you doing today?
- I’m sorry you are going through this.
- I’m here for you.
- I have no idea what to say, but I care about you.
- Do you want to talk?
- Do you want to tell me about them?
We asked people who have lost a loved one to share what they wish people would say:
I, I wish people would just say, take some time. Feel how you need to feel where you need to feel it. Um, sometimes say nothing, but hold space and sit there with you.
Silence is uncomfortable at the best of times, it's, it's painful with a grieving person, but, but maybe they need to say nothing except hold space.
Um, but I think, I think the thing that they could say is- and they could validate for you is, is, give you time and acknowledge that what you need is time and then be willing to spend that time.
And my experience with grief is that, is that sometimes those raw moments that scare people, they don't last long. They really don't. They might last five or ten minutes and then, and then, if, if, as a person trying to support a grieving person, and you can say, "you have the time, you have the space." That would be really, really, really beneficial I think.
I wish that people would just have acknowledged that it's okay to be a wreck, and to not know what to do.
And I wish... I wish that there is grief leave. Like, I went back to work and just... I mean also, what else I am going to do. But that sort of expectation that I would be back at full function now that I'm... now that's over, um, was garbage. Like, I did my job sort of, but didn't have my full capabilities as a human. And there was some space for that, but there was some expectation that, get on with it now. Which wasn't possible.
The people who get it right, um, they stay present. They're not always articulate, they're not always, um, it's not about saying the right thing. It's about, it's messy, and it's uncomfortable, and it's... People who, who get it right allow his death to affect them. And I think really that's, like, what it boils down to, is that the ones who are making these dismissive comments aren't, they're not letting it in. 'Cause if they let it in, they would have to feel it. And the people who get it right are feeling it. And so it's watching them cry. It's watching them mourn and grieve.
It's the people who are just saying, looking and you and saying, "This is a parent's worst nightmare. This is awful. I miss him. I want him here. I want, I want to see him as a younger brother and an older brother. I want to see you guys parent him. I want to know what his favorite food is, and his favorite color. And his quirks, and how he's funny, and how he's frustrating." And it's, it's, the people who get it right are letting themselves experience the loss.
I think on the hard days that are h- happening like Mother's Day or anniversaries or holidays, I don't wanna talk about it, 'cause if I talk about it, that makes it more real, and I just wanna just ...Like a hug or a, a hand on the shoulder or something, like a, "Hey, you're not alone," kind of connection that doesn't carry an expectation from me. That doesn't carry, like, me having to respond and say, "Oh, yeah, I'm fine." Like, I don't, I don't wanna have to respond that ... 'cause that's gonna be a lie. I'm not okay.
But I just want someone to connect with me w- in that, to cut through the loneliness in a way.
It doesn't have to be a big thing. And if someone writes, "Oh hey, I was thinking of you," I don't have to respond until I'm ready.
"Are you okay? Is there anything I can do? Do you need a," you know, like that kind of stuff is like, putting more work on me. Just, "I'm thinking of you." That feels nice. Or, "Hey, I made lunch. Do you wanna come over and have some? No pressure." You know? In that grief space that espe- especially arises on those holiday kind of things, making a decision is really hard, so someone offering a new decision connection option that is not full of expectation either, like ... That's pretty nice.
Just say, "It's a hard day," or, "That's really hard." I think acknowledgment is, for me, it's huge. It's like, oh my god, I- I'm visible again. And the fact that I'm, I'm grieving my husband who's missing, right, who'll never come back, is, is everything.
It becomes, it makes it visible, as opposed to, "at least something." You know, I don't think any good sentence starts with the words, "at least" when you're saying to a grieving person. Um. Or just a hug. I think any kind of acknowledgement that, that feeling is there and it's real and it matters, um, because your person mattered and because you as a person matter, I think, says it all.
Honestly, receiving hugs. Just having somebody hold you and give you a genuine hug. Not these tap hugs, you know, it's embracing you. And that's one of the things that I said to my husband when this all happened is, "Sometimes I don't need you to say anything. I just need you to hold me and just make me feel good."
I do that with my mom and dad. It's just meaningful moments of embracing one another, because that's what we need.
The support that really matters the most, has really helped the most is if it's like, "Hey, uh, let's all go out and get pizzas together tonight." That's just us just meeting us where we are, letting us live our lives together.
I don’t know what to say.
Some of the really helpful things were when people would just sit down and say, "Hey, I don't know exactly what you're going through, but we are always here for you and we will gladly help you," or just, "We're here for you." I think was a really big one that was so comforting, or even hearing some of the people saying, "Hey, I don't know what to say in this situation, but just know that you're loved and everybody's here for you and we care for you and we want to help you in any way, whatever that is that you need."
One of my best friends she just kind of said, "I don't know what to say." Like, I don't know what to do for you. And that was actually really nice, 'cause I was like, well, there is nothing you can do for me actually. There, there's nothing you can say. Nothing is gonna make it better. Um, and I'm kind of glad that you're not trying.
So it actually helped me relax, because it wasn't ... you know, the person wasn't trying to be like, oh, well, I'm gonna say this to you, and this will make you feel better. 'Cause then, 'cause when pe- ... I think, when people try to do that, then there, there's also that stress of, oh, wait, I didn't feel better.
Or like, I think a few, a few of my friends, I don't even ... I think it was maybe a week after my mom died, and we ended up doing a ... going out and drinking margaritas and doing a Karaoke night (laughs). And it was just this sort of really random like, we don't know what to do with you. Like, we don't know what anything ... do you want food? Do you wanna get out of the house? Yeah. And, and we just happened to end up at a restaurant that just happened to have a Karaoke night. And it just occurred. And it was really nice, because there wasn't any ex- ... you know, they had no expectations. I had no expectations. And, um, it just, it just worked.
I was at a funeral, um, it was an older man who had kind of been like a father figure to me. And when I saw his daughter, the first thing that came out of my mouth was, "Oh, I just loved him to death." And I thought, should I have said that? Right?
I, you know, it was spontaneous and I guess it was okay. Um, but we're so afraid of saying the wrong thing, that a lot of times we don't say anything at all.
It's okay to say I don't know what to say. It's okay just to say, "I'm sorry" That's enough. "I'm sorry and I love you." I think the other reason is that we have these kind of a antiquated, uh, old, uh, messages about what grief is and how we should deal with it. And, and we try to make that work in today's framework, and it doesn't.
I’m here for you.
Well some good things that people said was We can go through this together," like, "Talk to me whenever you need to."
We couldn't have been in better hands than we were at- at that particular hospital here in Seattle at- at the University of Washington hospital. And the nursing staff there were just fabulous, like empathy was just coming from them.
The way friends and family and work … my- my particularly my work responded, um, was- was just amazing. I remember feeling kind of a- an overwhelming level of support from people, initially.
And a friend of mine sent me a text, and he said that, that "the path we were going to have to walk is going to be very difficult. And some people would choose not to walk that path with you. And … but he would be one person that would." And that … I always just remember that, that particular text.
To me it's more helpful to say, instead of, "I'm sorry for your loss," just say, "I'm sorry," or, "If you need anything, you can talk to me about it." But I think, "I'm sorry," to me means a lot more than, "I'm sorry for your loss," or, or, uh, "One day you'll get over it." Just, "I'm sorry," is enough.
Sometimes you don't have to say anything at all. You can just put your hand on their shoulder or give them a hug or just quietly just be quiet with them. You could just sit with them and just be there.
You don't have to say anything all the time. You don't always have to have ... Sometimes there's just nothing to say. Just be there. Actually there, not just conveniently there. I think that means a lot more than words.