When talking to someone who has just lost a loved one, I believe one of the worst things you can say is, “How are you?”…
This open-ended question forces the griever to use empty platitudes to somehow try to assure you that, despite her recent tragedy, she will be alright. How many times have you heard someone at a visitation service pitifully say, “I’m hanging in there” or “I’ll get through it”? Your grieving friend shouldn’t have to gloss over her heartache to make it more bearable for you. And obviously the person is not doing well. So don’t ask.
Another thing to avoid is reliving your shock and horror about this particular death to the person who is grieving. Oliver Burkeman’s recent column in The Guardian was a great reminder of the obvious: it’s not about you. So don’t insert yourself into the tragedy. If you are upset about a friend’s loss, discuss with someone else further out from the tragedy’s center, not the mourner. It’s about the person left behind and her grief, not yours.
Bottom line: give a person space to say or feel whatever she wants. When you see a friend or acquaintance in a recent state of grief say something such as, “I’m so sorry for your loss. You are in my prayers and I am here for you.” And then let her either say “thank you” and move on or, if she feels up to it at that particular moment, talk about her tragedy. Either way, be ok with it.
After getting home from an exhausting day of greeting well-meaning acquaintances at my grandmother’s funeral, putting on a smile as people said useless phrases like, “It was a blessing she went so fast” and “Just be thankful you had so much time with her,” my mom came home to a note from her long-time housekeeper. You could hear Paulette’s blunt and twangy voice in her scrawled words: “Losin’ your mama never gets easier. You just have to deal.”
Her words were gritty, but validating. And, funny enough, they actually made my mom feel a little better.
Photo credit: Michael Zhang