why are we so awkward with the grieving?

People die all the time. A harsh statement and somewhat anti-social, you might say. But, it’s true. At some point in our lives, if not already, we will experience loss.

So why are we so bad at handling another person’s grief? Why so unprepared for our own? Someone recently commented on how they were surprised and fascinated by the way people approached their best friend who had just lost her Dad. They described them as speaking to her friend as if she were on the other side of a glass box. Their demeanour apologetic for having made the presumption that they could even speak to the grieving party. Awkward, just plain awkward.

Thanks to the much loved and loathed internet we have access to a wide range of ‘how to…’ articles. Some such articles can help us to write that dread-inspiring condolence note/text or sympathy card. However, sometimes these articles can misinform.

Hallmark’s website “How to Write a Sympathy Card” has a real howler to be completely blunt (an attribute that grieving people commonly acquire – both being blunt and howling). In their section on what NOT to write Hallmark gives the following examples:

  • “I know how you feel.” We all experience and process grief differently.
  • “She was so young.” No need for a potentially painful reminder.
  • “What a terrible loss.” Avoid dwelling on the pain or difficulty of the loss.
  • “You should…” Instead of advice, offer comfort and support.
  • “You will…” Steer clear of predictions about how their grief journey will go.
  • “This happened for a reason.” Even with the best intentions behind it, this thought risks assigning blame for the death. (http://ideas.hallmark.com/sympathy-ideas/what-to-write-in-a-sympathy-card/)

I agree with five of the six but almost choked on my green tea at the third one. Don’t say “what a terrible loss”? This is misguided advice. Though the key sentiment may be don’t dwell on it. As in, say over and over in every way you can think possible, and every time you see them, how the most terrible event that could ever happen has happened and they must feel truly awful. I actually think the reason this is unhelpful is because your sentiment will seem lacking in genuine feeling. Overdoing it in a ‘why God why?!!’ fashion will suggest you are just trying too hard to say the right thing. If that is their point it should not be expressed in this list in such a vanilla form because the statement itself seems perfectly apt to me.

Could you really make them feel worse by mentioning their pain? By trying to “comfort” them with trite condolences, yes. You could even hurt or offend. You could tell them they will heal and life will go on, when they don’t want to go on and living with the pain is the main thing that connects them to their loved one. Your words can hurt.

You remind them of the love they had for each other, like many do. But what if they had a troubled relationship? What if they had a good relationship but their last words were harsh and hurtful? Your words will hurt.

By saying empty phrases such as, “they are in heaven watching over you. They are another star in the sky.” They may have conflicting beliefs, concerns, fears for where their loved one is. Or they just don’t know and so what you’ve said could have been printed in a Hallmark card and offers no comfort. That can hurt. (In the past friends have comforted me with spiritual comments but they know me very well and I can tell that it is said from a genuine belief not an obligation to give some consolation.)

By saying, “what a terrible loss, there are no words. We are thinking of you at this painful time.” No, that does not do them a disservice. That tells them what they already know. What is already consuming them, physically and emotionally. Every day.

Not only that but it permits them to cry in front of you ten months on. It permits them to talk about their pain in all its overwhelming darkness. It permits them to tell you stories about their loved one even though you may not have known them. The permission comes with communicating that you understand how devastating the loss is.

The most memorable comment a friend made to me in the months soon after my Dad died was: “I haven’t really got over the shock of my sadness for you guys, I’m so affected by that and have followed your journey’s with entire admiration.”

Yes, she was talking about her feelings but didn’t dwell on them and her message put across: “what a terrible loss, it has shocked me and deeply upset me because it is SO PAINFUL FOR YOU.”

I read an article that commented on the fact that the most helpful thing one could say to someone who has experienced the pain of death is:

“It’s f**ked.”

Swearing isn’t in my day-to-day vocabulary (I’d like to think), which means it lends itself to describing the truly terrible moments in life. I don’t think I would say this exactly, or at least not to certain people. The sentiment, however, is important to note.

If all you do is acknowledge your friend or family member’s far-reaching pain and then just… sit there. Silently.

You will have done them a solid.







Add Yours
  1. Nicola

    It’s the hardest thing to know what to say and it can be such a worry not to say the wrong thing (I wonder if this is a particularly ‘British’ problem? Sometimes you can then not say enough.
    Really helpful to read thanks x


    • Where I Write

      Yep, it can be hard. Have you experienced not saying enough Nicola? I think you’re right, it is a British problem and the question is, what is our main motivation for needing to say the ‘right’ thing? I think it’s that we struggle to accept that it’s ok for someone to feel bad and so we are trying to make them feel better. But why can’t they just feel bad when the situation warrants it?! I think if our motivation was more in line with the question, ‘what might they need to say?’ rather than ‘what might they need to hear?’ than perhaps we would approach it differently, acknowledging their pain and then waiting to judge what they are wanting to do, talk about it or not. If they don’t talk about it further then perhaps we just talk about anything else and treat them like what they are; a normal person.
      Thanks for commenting Nicola!


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