Life + Culture

What Do We Say to Grieving People?

What Do We Say to Grieving People?

Transcript

Because my husband David and I have gone through the death of two of our children, and we do a lot of speaking and interacting with grieving people, oftentimes people ask us, “What do I say to someone who has just lost someone, or what do I do?” None of us wants to be that person who says the really stupid thing, or the really insensitive thing.

The first thing I would say to someone when you’re trying to figure out what to do in regard to someone who’s going through grief is, “Say something.” Let’s face it, it’s awkward sometimes to know exactly what to say, and we have the sense in which we want to say something that’s meaningful, maybe even memorable, compassionate. But the truth is, when you’re going through grief, you don’t need people to say something that’s any of those things. You just really want a sense that they’re with you in it, that they want to be with you in it. People in grief want to know that others are, in a sense, carrying some of the sorrow that they are experiencing — just by the fact that others express that they care.

So often one of the best things to say is, “I don’t know what to say.” When you say to a grieving person, “I don’t know what to say,” in a sense it shows respect for their loss, as if I don’t presume to have an easy right answer, something to say that’s going to fix this. And so that’s a good thing,

Or just to say, “I’m so sad.” Sometimes we tend to think that someone who’s going through grief, that their sadness is a problem. And we want them to get through that sadness to being happy again — or back to some sense of normal — and yet it makes sense when you’ve lost someone you love, that you be sad.

And so to interact with someone, anticipating that they would be sad, and then expressing, “I am sad with you.” I mean, grief is a very lonely experience. You know, even if all your friends are there for you in the best way possible — your spouse is there for you, all of those things — the essence of grief is a deep, pervasive loneliness. And it means so much for people around us to overcome the awkwardness — and maybe even the desire and fears that I’ll say the wrong thing — to say something. Honestly, the most painful thing is when you’ve had a loss and someone around you—because of the awkwardness — never acknowledges it. That’s what hurts the most. Because what it says to you is that person you love who died doesn’t even really merit a mention. And that’s devastating.

I think another thing that keeps us from saying something to someone who has lost someone is that we think to ourselves something like, “Well, lots of other people are saying something to that person, and so they won’t even notice if I never acknowledged it.”

But here’s the truth. When you’ve gone through the loss of a loved one, it’s almost as if there is a barrier put up between you and every person in your world. And it’s not until that person acknowledges your loss that that barrier comes down. And it doesn’t have to be anything brilliant.

And sometimes it can even be wordless. I can think of times when I was going through grief when someone just came next to me and squeezed my hand or gave me even a knowing look, with that sense of, “I know what’s going on, and I’m sad and I’m in a sense speechless.”

And then one of the really beautiful things some people did was actually weep in my presence. And I know that sounds awkward for some people — I think especially men. I know for my husband, he wouldn’t say, “Wow, I was really hoping people would come and cry with me.” That wasn’t the form his grief took.

But for many of us, when you’re carrying this huge load of sorrow and you look up, and you see someone who is shedding tears — that they are so identifying with your loss that they are in a sense carrying some of the load of sorrow for you — that’s an incredible gift to give to someone who’s grieving.


Contact Nancy

Nancy is currently working on writing a short book on how to help people who are going through grief that will include brief quotes from other people about what others said or did that was helpful to them. If you'd like to share your experience with Nancy for possible inclusion in her book, go to What Was Helpful?

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