I mentioned earlier this week that my cousin, Leanne, lost her husband, Spencer, a week ago. Spencer leaves behind seven kids, ages 14 years old to 5 months. We are all absolutely devastated. The funeral was yesterday, and it was one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever sat through. My heart ached for Leanne and for her beautiful kids all clinging to her. It will be a hard road for her, but the spirit was strong and I think all who were there felt the intense power of families. I believe strongly that Leanne will see Spencer again and that they will get to be a forever family.
It is always hard to know exactly what to say or what to do when someone we care about loses a loved one. I think most of us certainly want to help, but are unsure how or we feel a bit awkward or uncomfortable around people who are grieving so intensely. Since my dad died I have had several friends or acquaintances lose loved ones. I always try to be extra sensitve and caring to them and I have had a few people remark, "You can tell that you've lost a loved one because of how you act and what you say." While I am happy that people can see my extra sensitivity, wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to experience crushing loss to understand how to help those who have? A few years ago I wrote this post on what to say when someone has lost a loved one, but I want to add a little bit to it today.
WHAT TO SAY:
"I am so sorry." It's simple. But effective.
"I love you." No matter what, express love. One of the hardest things about losing my dad is that I was now missing one of the people who loved me most in the entire world. Somehow I needed others to fill all that love that my dad normally gave me. Losing a very very close person in your life is so hard because you really do feel less important and less loved... making sure you step up to tell that person that just because one person who loves her is gone doesn't mean that there aren't more waiting in the wings to fill that love.
"I am praying (or fasting) for you." I think even if people aren't religious, it is always comforting to hear that someone who is religious is praying for you. I have felt very strengthened by others' prayers on my behalf more than once.
"I am so grateful to have known __________?" (Person who has died) Knowing that you are not the only one who things your lost one is pretty great always feels good.
Share a memory. This one is HUGE. In the months and years after my dad died I would have people share memories with me about him. I love hearing stories about my dad that I've never heard before and it helps to keep him and his legacy alive. I love hearing the silly, fun, and happy memories from people who I hardly even know but who my dad touched in some way. A funeral or viewing isn't always the best place to stroll down memory lane, but in the weeks after my dad died we had so many people send letters and cards telling us things they remembered about my dad. This was so comforting to my family. We sat around together and read all these memories from people far and wide who my dad had touched. I think this is one of the most sensitive and kind things you can do for the close family when their loved one dies.
If you don't know what to say, less is more. I think because of our own awkwardness after someone has died we want to fill that space up with lots of words, but those words are meaningless to someone who has experienced enormous grief. Hugs, love, prayer, smiles are all more meaningful in situations like this than words. That is not to say that you ignore the grief, I had a lot of people after my dad died who wouldn't say anything about it at all to me. I knew they were uncomfortable and didn't know what to say, but not even recognizing the death or the pain made me feel completely alone in my grief. A person who is grieving isn't going to bring up their pain on their own, sometimes you have to give them permission to talk about it. "How has your week been?" "Are you coping ok?" "How are the kids doing?" Etc.
WHAT NOT TO SAY
"I can't even imagine." I don't know why I hate this one so much, but when you've lost a loved one and someone else who has every person they've ever loved close to them tells you that they can't imagine how bad it sucks, it feels like it's kind of rubbing it in a little bit that you are the one who has to manage the grief. I may be alone on this one, but it just certainly never made me feel any better.
"You are lucky that you got the time with him that you did"
"You are lucky that he died peacefully and didn't suffer."
"At least you got to go on that trip to Hawaii last summer."
When people say well meaning things like this, they are trying to minimize the pain. But it doesn't help. I had a lot of people say to me after my dad died, "At least you got home from your mission and had a few months with him before he died." I hated this. Was I supposed to be rejoicing because I got those extra months when other people got 30 more years with their dads than I would? Any way I looked at it, it still sucked and I resented people trying to tell me that it didn't suck as bad as I thought it did. No one who has just lost a loved one feels "lucky" or "fortunate" in any way. I got to the point where I could see a lot of blessings that came from my dad's death but IT TAKES TIME. (I wrote about some of the blessings four years later in this post) In the beginning there is just blinding grief. When there is pain I think as humans our natural response is to try to ease it in some way, so we try to bring up something that might make the pain feel less intense. Don't do this. Just let the person feel their pain without trying to tell them that it's not that bad. The person will eventually arrive to the day when they can see "silver lingings" but it's not your job to point those out three days after the person died.
A bunch of stories about someone else's pain. Again, I think we do this to try to ease the pain of the sufferer by pointing out that others have been in pain too. Right after my dad died I heard a lot of stories about other people and their loss. I do think there is a time and place for this, but immediately after someone has died is not the time. Let the person grieve their own loss without trying to crowd it with someone else's loss. Let it be about them. Let them be selfish in their grief.
"Be strong" or "You can handle this- you are strong." This one I am on the fence about. In the right way this can be incredibly comforting. Whenever my mom tells me that I am strong, I feel great strength and empowerment from that. But sometimes when random people would start telling me that I need to be strong, or that I could handle this grief because I was strong, it made me want to tell them to piss off. Heartache shouldn't be a consequence of strength and the way some people spoke made me feel like I had lost my dad because I was strong and because "God knew I could handle it." Well, that's a super crappy thing to say. It implies that if I were a weaker person God wouldn't have taken my dad from me, but because I'm strong I don't get to have my dad in this life. Instead of saying "Be strong" or "You can handle this because you're so strong" say "I am inspired by your strength", "I am praying for you for strength" or "You have great strength within you." I know the difference is pretty nuanced, but for me it did make a difference.
"If you need anything, let me know." Well meaning people say this all the time, but it is a very empty offer, especially for people who are independent and maybe a little prideful. After a death you need a lot of things, but I'm certainly not going to call my neighbor down the street and beg for help because that's just too vulnerable. Instead say, "Can I bring you dinner on Tuesday?" or "My kids are going to the park right now, let me take yours with me." (Also, if the person doesn't take you up on the offer, try again.)
There's a lot more that I could say, but my writing time is gone. The moral of the story is that people who have recently lost someone need a lot of support and love, but they also need space to figure out their new life without their loved one. Finding the balance is tricky. Make sure they know how much you love and care about them and give real offers of help to them. Hugs and chocolate also never hurt.