In FaceBook (an internet social site), I put a call out to people who had gone through grief. I asked them what helped most and what helped least when it came to support from friends. The overwhelming response I received didn’t surprise me. I’ll post it in its entirety in the Members Only Section inside.
People agreed that some things people say help, other things people say do more than hurt. The wrong thing said at the wrong time can cause an ordinarily passive person to want to put on the boxing gloves and go ten rounds. People who responded to my question agreed they would prefer someone saying little or nothing instead of nervously babbling and saying the wrong things. Words are powerful. They can build up or tear apart, heal or hurt, strengthen or weaken when they’re heard. Learn to let the words we speak be compassionate and powerful words that help people heal.
DO NOT SAY:
“It’s God’s Will.” While that’s likely true for those who believe in a Higher Power, hearing it said doesn’t help. It can make people even angrier than they already are at God because this pain is their path. Trust friends and loved ones to discover this idea for themselves.
“You must not become angry at God; that’s wrong,” one person said to me when my son died and I expressed my anger at God. “You can’t feel that way,” she said. “It’s wrong. Getting angry at God cuts you off from your source of help and support.” These words didn’t help. Now I had guilt about my feelings added to the already overwhelming pile of feelings I had in the weeks, months, and years following my son’s death. Feeling guilty about feeling angry at God is an unnecessary emotion. God is big enough to handle our anger and rage. Feeling angry at the other person is part of any normal intimate relationship. Feeling close enough to God to feel angry is expresses our love and faith. It’s perfectly okay if that’s how we feel.
“I know how you feel.” No, you don’t. Even if you experienced a similar loss, how do you know your friend or loved one is feeling exactly as you felt? Each of us has our own unique emotional responses to our loss. If you truly knew how someone felt, you wouldn’t need to express that because your friend would know that you understood. Don’t assume. Ask. Let people be who they are and feel the way they do. Realize how they feel may be different than you.
“Aren’t you over that yet?” It was the first Christmas after my son Shane died. I was walking through the mall when someone who was a longtime friend approached me. “How are you?” he asked. “I’m not doing too well,” I replied. He looked surprised. “Why not? What’s wrong?” he asked. “My son died,” I said. He reeled back like I had leprosy. “Aren’t you over that yet?” he asked?” Those were the most hurtful words spoken to me that anyone said. We tend to beat ourselves up, thinking we should move more quickly through our grief.
One friend even told me that “I’d show people how to deal with grief in record time because of the work I did.” I may have broken records, but it was the other kind. It takes most people about eight years to get through the worst part of losing a child. It took me close to ten and that’s alright. We each have our own personal velocity, our own pace. We probably won’t move at the same speed as the rest of the world. It’s your grief, your loss, and you’ll deal with it when you do.
“He (or she) is happier or better off now.” Times when we’ve watched someone suffer a long, drawn-out painful death, seeing a loved one not suffer anymore can be a blessing. But let the person say those words himself. What wife wants to think her husband is happier without her? What parent wants to hear that his or her child is better off without that parent? These aren’t words of comfort; they’re words that hurt the grieving person and make us (the person attempting to offer comfort) feel better.
“Let me know if there’s something you need.” These words don’t hurt but they don’t help either. Grieving people often have no idea what they need. What they want is for the loss not to have occurred. Think of something helpful you can do, and then do it. Going grocery shopping became a difficult task for a while, although later on it became a comforting errand. Movies can help some people in grief; they like to watch a story. It helps them heal. If that’s the case with your friend, bring the person some DVDs or go to movies with them. If you rent DVDs for your friend, stop by and pick them up and return them when they’re due.
Other people like to read and journal. Take them to the bookstore or buy them a journal. Cook for your friend. Make and freeze some meals, put them in containers, label and date them, and bring them to your friend. Don’t sit and wait for an invitation to eat over. Your friend may want to eat alone or might not be hungry now. Sometimes doing chores such as mowing the lawn, washing the car, or doing other errands or chores can be practical and helpful things to do. But before you get too deeply involved and assume too much, ask your friend if doing a particular chore or errand is something your friend would like. Your friend lost something important – but it wasn’t his or her mind. Respect people’s boundaries.
“You need to give a gift to everyone who was there for you the week of your son’s death. Paying for them to take a vacation is the proper way to say ‘thank you.’” Yes, someone really said that to me and yes, the group of people who received money to take a trip included her. People in grief – especially deep loss – are extremely vulnerable. They need protection, not people taking advantage of them. (Things like this happen more than you think.) I expected Life to protect me after my loss but the opposite happened; the vultures came to pick at my bones.
Let’s move on to things we can say that help. (One activity we’ll work on inside is writing a comfort letter. There’s a precise form that can comfort and help someone in grief.)
DO CONSIDER SAYING:
“I’m at a loss for words” or “All I can say is I love you and I’m sorry for your loss.” Remember your mission is to comfort your friend, not comfort yourself. When in doubt about what to say, tell the truth and keep it brief.
“This really sucks that you have to go through this, but I know you’re strong and you’ll make it through – whether you want to or not.” Don’t start looking for the silver lining. Sometimes life sucks. Admit it. Tell the truth. Express belief in your friend. He or she may need to see your belief reflected in your eyes.
“Call any time of the day or night. It’s never too early or too late if you need and want to talk. ” Don’t push your friend to talk but don’t put earplugs in, either. Your friend may need to tell the loss story over and over. People need to do this to integrate the unthinkable into their lives. Don’t call them in the middle of the night, though. That’s not okay, unless the person specifically asked you to do that. A relative began calling me had nightly just as I was about to fall asleep. It was annoying, disturbing, and it didn’t help. Plus the person was drinking. I stopped taking that person’s calls.
Ask the person if he or she feels comfortable discussing the loss of the person. Some people want to talk; others don’t. If the person doesn’t mind talking, share a favorite memory about the person who died. It helps keep the person alive in a good way. A large fear when we lose someone to death is that we’ll forget the person or the deceased person will forget us. Sharing special memories can make a person feel good even though it might cause them to cry. Another good way to do this is by picking out a card and writing about the memory you had with the person. Be sure to make it a positive, funny, or loving memory that speaks to the person’s good qualities. The memories you share will be deeply appreciated and cherished.
Being around someone in deep pain — or even medium pain — can make us feel awkward and uncomfortable. It’s not your job to fix anyone or take away their pain. We don’t have that much power. Trying to fix someone also implies that it’s not okay for that person to feel his or her feelings. That can make your friend feel more uncomfortable than they already do. Be yourself. If you’re not sure what to say, then the less said the better. Let your friend or loved one lead the way. Use your gifts and skills to pick up on what the other person needs. Validating hos your friend feels can be the most helpful thing anyone can do. Let what you say and do communicate that the person’s feelings and the length of time he’s grieving is perfectly okay — because it is.
Remember, if you’re not sure whether the person is comfortable talking about their loss, don’t assume. Ask if they want to talk or not. Then respect what you hear. Just assuring a friend that you believe in their power to survive the loss they’ve experienced can be an empowering and healing thing to do.
From the desk of Melody Beattie
Originally posted 2010
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