by Dr. David Knapp PhD
One big question concerning loss we all encounter regularly is “What do yo say to a friend or loved one when they experience severe loss?”
I learned from personal experience that few would-be comforters are comfortable with helpful statements like “Your heart must be hurting right now.” Many have a cliché or two that they blurt out in a nervous effort to get the moment over with. Unfortunately, common statements like, “They are in a better place” or “I know how you must feel” really don’t do much for the pain the griever feels.
My first devastating encounter with grief came through the death of my wife. I was in my late 30s, an administrator and teacher at a college, and parenting four young children. I didn’t know a human could hurt that much. It was all new to me, and I had no idea that some of my viewpoints about deep mourning were so off base. The “hole in my soul” haunted me.
I experienced avoidance (saying nothing) by others as one of the dominant methods of dealing with grief and loss. Often when up close and personal, some default ways of coping with my grief were to change the subject, stuff it down, or explain it away in a feeble effort to prevent grief’s symptoms. These hurt me more than anyone realized and were vastly ineffective in soothing my raw emotions.
“I know exactly how you feel,” was said to me several times. The truth was that there was no way they could know because they had not heard my story and had not experienced my journey. Others said, “Call if you ever need anything.” Guess what? I never called anyone who said that to me. First, I didn’t even know what I needed, and second, I was struggling with simple decisions. So, deciding to call them did not happen.
Some pointed out, “You should be happy for the time you had with her.” Well duh! Just because I was grieving didn’t mean I wasn’t happy with our life. It meant that we did have a great life together.
Then some made statements implying that I should “snap out of it,” or “This is behind you now,” and “It’s time to get on with your life.” Really? Not helpful and terrible timing. Also, I found that opinions that begin with “you should” or even “you will” were not helpful.
Transparent statements resonated with me: “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”
One close friend admitted to me, “I didn’t know what to say,” following months of unexplained silence. Others were just ill-at-ease. But friends seemed receptive when given a chance to talk and explain where I was in the grieving process and what could help. I began to recognize that most people, whether friends or family and those in professional capacities, wanted to connect with me in my grief. Still, fear, ignorance, or verbal clumsiness held them back.
My experiences with the stupid things people say have made me a better friend to those I encounter who are grieving. I consciously say things that validate their pain and loss.