A couple of recent articles about what to say and not to say to chronically ill people reminded me of an essay I’ve been wanting to write for a long time: an essay about what to say and not to say to grieving people.
This is not that essay.
Instead I’ve been thinking a lot about the fundamental difficulties in communication. Those articles I linked to have excellent advice for how to support people who are ill, and yet… implementing that advice is no easy matter. It can be hard to be supportive, and it can be hard to be supported.
I’d love to think that having gone through the experience of losing my own mother would make me some kind of expert when it comes to grief. But it hasn’t. I still find myself at a loss for words. I still don’t always know the best way to support someone experiencing grief. Because people are different, and they need different things.
The reason I wanted to write that essay is because of some profoundly stupid and upsetting things people said to me about losing my mother (both during and afterwards). But I recognize that some of those things that grated against my raw skin would have been comforting to others. So if you don’t know a person extremely well, how do you know? How do you know what they need to hear? The answer is, you don’t. You do your best to be thoughtful and caring, and you listen in hopes of hearing what they need.
Of course, some responses are simply a bad idea. Pushing our religions and religious ideas onto others who don’t share them in a time of grief is shockingly dense. Comparing one grieving person with another one unfavorably is also completely out. (Julie lost her mom last year and is doing great, so why are you such a mess? Ugh.) Continuing a conversation normally as if we didn’t just hear someone tell us about a recent loss? Completely inappropriate. (And yes, these are all responses I received personally.)
But beyond that, some people want alone time, while other people never want to be alone. Sometimes it’s nice to pretend like everything’s okay, and sometimes another minute of pretending seems completely insupportable. Sometimes people will want to talk about it, sometimes they’ll want to cry, and sometimes they’ll want to play video games. Some people will want to talk religion, some will be experiencing grave doubts, and some will simply want to avoid the subject as much as possible. And the relationship between the grieving and the dead will be different in each case as well. But somehow in the aftermath of death we forget this and make assumptions that aren’t always correct.
Our society teaches us to tiptoe around grief. What this often means is a flood of well wishes right after the death of a loved one, followed by…resounding silence. No one knows if they’re supposed to pretend nothing is wrong or if they’re supposed to inquire after you. People don’t know how best to support you. Those who grieve are not always encouraged to figure out what they need or communicate those needs to others. Sometimes they are too upset to have any hope of doing so.
Because this is not that essay, I don’t have any nice, neat conclusions for you. I don’t have definitive answers or a list of ten things you should do to help your friend who is grieving. What I try (and sometimes fail) to do myself is to be compassionate, remember that the other person is not me, and pay attention. I don’t feel like it is enough, but it’s all I’ve got.
If you’ve ever lost a loved one, what kind of support did you need/want? What things did people say to you that were particularly helpful (or unhelpful)?