What Can I Say?
I’ve heard several times since Ian’s death that people don’t know what to say to me, which is completely understandable. There is no magic phrase that will make the loss less painful. There’s nothing that you CAN say that will suddenly make someone who’s suffering from grief all better.
That being said, I have figured out a few things that work for me. As each person is different, these may or may not work for others, but here are some general guidelines that I think may be helpful.
1. What can I do?
I’ve always been told that saying something along the lines of “can I do anything?” isn’t the best. Because it’s not likely that the person will actually have something you can do, or feel comfortable asking.
In my experience, that is true. Most often, my gut reaction to “can I do anything?” is “No. Can you bring him back to life? Do you have a time machine? If not, no. You can’t do anything.”
Closely related, but somewhat better, ostensibly, was “what can I do?” which, according to the advice I’d heard before, gives the person permission to ask for something. And yes, I guess it is slightly better. But not by much. See, when people ask that, especially soon after the initial event, the person they’re asking is not likely to KNOW.
When people asked me what they could do, I had to both figure out what I needed, and whether they might be willing to do it. Like, are you saying that I can call you at 3am to ask you to come over and help clean my house because I’m awake, restless, can’t stand the fact that there is a cobweb in my closet, and I don’t want to be alone?
Instead, what seems a better idea to me is to offer a suggestion. “Can I bring you food?” or “Can I wash your car?” are good examples. I’ve had several people tell me I could call them whenever if I needed to talk, and I’ve taken a few of them up on it. Offer what you’re actually willing to do. That gives the person a good idea of what’s out there for them. Whether it’s hugs randomly, an ear, a lunch date, or something bigger, let them know what you’re willing to do. Every little bit helps.
2. I’m sorry for your loss.
This one, I’ve heard mixed reviews on. For me, it works. I understand that the person is sad for me, and wishes I didn’t have to go through the pain. Other people have said that it’s annoying because it’s not the fault of the person saying they’re sorry. (Unless it is, in which case, yes, please apologize.) Alternatives that might be better are “I wish you didn’t have to go through this,” and “I feel for you.”
3. You are in my thoughts/prayers.
I think the reaction to this one depends entirely on the mindset of the person you’re saying it to. When people say they’re thinking about me, or I’m in their thoughts, I appreciate it. It’s not something that is terribly useful, but hey, it’s warm and fuzzy. I take “you’re in my prayers” much the same way. I don’t necessarily think prayers are all that useful, but it’s warm and fuzzy. If the person you’re talking to is very atheist, however, that could be something that bugs them. The safe bet is thoughts.
4. He/She is watching over you now.
This one, while meant to be comforting bugs me. If you believe that, and it’s comforting to you, then that’s great, and if you know the person you’re talking to believes that, then go ahead. But for me, my reaction to that varies from annoyance to downright anger. You don’t KNOW that. And trying to make me feel better by telling me something that may or may not be true is not the way to go. This one, I know is controversial. It’s going to be very different for everyone.
5. You’ll see him/her again.
Similar to the previous one, if you believe it, bully for you. But you don’t know it, so it bugs me. The other part of that is, even if it IS true, if everything goes the way I want it to from here on out, it’s going to be MANY YEARS before that happens, so it’s really not that helpful right now. With the added thought that thinking like that might just make someone more likely to consider suicide/death as an option. Personally, I would avoid saying something like this, unless the person I were comforting started down that road.
6. Are you ok?
The answer to this is going to be no. The person you’re asking is grieving, which means that sometimes they’ll be sad. Sometimes they’ll be mad. Sometimes they’ll be numb. Sometimes they’ll be any number of things, but generally, okay is not one of them. A better version of this is “how are you doing?” It gives them a chance to actually give a real answer. But don’t ask unless you really want to know. Also, I had someone relate to me that after one of their loved ones died by hanging himself, someone, unknowingly, of course, asked, “are you hanging in there?” Needless to say, avoiding that phrasing is probably a good idea.
Overall, saying something is better than saying nothing. If you’re in person, merely a hug or some indication that you care can be enough. If your interactions with the grieving person are solely online, just send a quick hug, or note that says something along the lines of, “I know there’s nothing I can say to make it better, but I care about you.”
The grieving person may not know how to respond, they may not have the energy or wherewithal or emotional capability. But knowing that someone cares is always good.
I’d love to hear your experiences. If you’ve experienced a loss and were grieving, what helped you? What bugged you? Why?
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