You've probably heard some of these yourself. If you've had one of your siblings die, someone has probably told you that "at least you still have your other siblings," as if the volume of siblings were the problem, as if the other siblings were simply going to expand to fill the permanent void where your dead sibling used to be. People who mourn a parent long after they are gone are often told to stop dwelling, that they should get over it and move on. Parents who lose their children say they often hear things like "I know how you feel. I lost my grandmother when I was ten," as if losing a child isn't the worst thing that could ever happen to a parent, as if anyone who hasn't lived through it could possibly imagine the hell, the grief.
Here is where I must say that I am absolutely certain that I have, on more than one occasion, said something perfectly appalling to a person who was grieving. In emotional situations, when I know I'm supposed to say something and I don't know what to say, my mouth tends to spit out words without running them by my brain for approval first. I think nobody knows what to say to a person who is grieving, so we resort to cliches that do not comfort. We say things like "she's in a better place" or "everything happens for a reason" that we mean as comfort but in reality are kind of dismissive. "He's in a better place" to a mourner might feel like "it is selfish of you to be sad that your loved one is no longer here."
So recently, a friend whom I love experienced a loss so awful I can't even fathom how she keeps on putting one foot in front of the other. And some people have responded to her loss in some truly awful ways, ways that grind salt into a gaping wound.
Which makes me want to share with everyone the rules I use when talking to a grieving person, compiled over a lifetime of learning from my mistakes. I thought I'd share it, so all of you can learn from my failure too. Here goes.
- No looking on the bright side. Do not say the words "at least." No "He's in a better place"; no "at least now you don't have to walk that dog every day anymore"; no "that disease is very treatable these days." I can't turn someone's grief to hope by shoving rose-colored glasses on to their face. Say instead "I'll never forget how proud she was of you the day you graduated college" or "You took such good care of him and gave him such a happy life" or "I will help in any way I can."
- Never say "I know how you feel." I've got no business taking another's grief and making it about me and what I've suffered. Everybody's grief is different, and saying I know how someone else feels is like saying "you're nothing special," Instead say "my heart aches for you," say "I love you and I'm here for you and I'm thinking of you always."
- Do not minimize. Never say it's "just a dog." Never say "your arthritis is bad, but cancer is worse." Victor Frankl said that suffering is like a vessel - some people's vessels are big and some are small, but a full vessel is a full vessel. Grief is grief. Honor the grief of others, no matter how it compares to what losses others have grieved. Instead say "I know how much you loved him," say "You must be so afraid, but I'm here to help you get through it."
- Say "I can't imagine how you feel," but do not leave it at that. As a good friend with MS often says, "no, you can't imagine, but you could try." Instead say "do you want to talk about it?" say "you can tell me all about it, if you want to," say "I'm listening. Help me understand."
- Do not assume a person wants to be left alone. Do not assume a person wants me all up in their grill about it either. Do not avoid but do not pester, do not ignore the elephant in the room, but don't pry into the whys and wherefores and logistics of said elephant. Acknowledge the elephant, but let the elephant alone.
So anyway, those are my rules. I try hard not to say the things above, which challenges me to find new and innovative ways to stick my foot into my mouth. By the time I die I'll probably have mastered the art of always finding a new wrong thing to say. And then, other people can say awful things to whomever is left to mourn me.