My recent post about grief on Instagram had a phrase in it that offended someone in my life. I wrote: “And please don’t talk to me about remembering the good times or how lucky I was to have him. (Leave that thin bullshit for a crappy card pulled from the shelves of a newsstand.) Please don’t cover over my grief with platitudes because it makes you uncomfortable.”
This person felt that this was rude, condescending, and belittling because they remembered saying those things to me. My intention was not to shame people for saying the wrong thing to someone who is grieving. My intention was to speak what was raw and real for me, to share honestly and openly about what it feels like to lose someone you love.
I was stunned that this person took my words personally. Countless people have “bright sided” my grief or compared their grief to my grief. Thus, it was not at all a personal criticism, but rather a cultural commentary about how we deal with grief.
I understand that the intention is good – to let a bereaved person know we care, that we can relate. And as humans, we want to fix things for each other, so we offer a positive spin on the situation or let our experience of grief bleed into theirs. I get that. And I’m sure that in the past I’ve done and said the same things. Because I had no idea how it felt to be in the shoes of the bereaved.
Death of a loved one is an initiation. (Just like birth is, actually.) You can’t explain it to someone who hasn’t had a direct experience of it. Before I lost my brother I too, had no idea what to say to someone who was bereaved. And even in the experience of losing my brother, I had no idea what to say to my own parents, how to hold space and respect their own unique experience of loss as parents.
So while I stand by what I wrote in that post, I also understand that being told what not to say is less helpful than being told what TO say. In that spirit, I offer up some things that were helpful for me and made me feel supported. Some words and actions that I’ve now adopted when I have a grieving friend to support.
Bottom line: Acknowledge it, don’t avoid it. Support the grief, don’t try to shift it. Rather than comparing your experience of loss to theirs, or trying to help them see the positive, listen. Listen deeply. Listen deeply. Please refer to this excellent article about conversational narcissism.)
And when you do speak, let your words be an invitation for more listening. “Of course you feel that way.” “How can I support you?” “This is so incredibly hard, how can I help you?”
Words of encouragement are important, too, “You’re navigating this incredibly challenging situation with so much grace and strength.”
And of course, if you are nearby, act. Grief is incredibly physical (I had no idea). The physical body needs support. Drop a meal. Or juices. Or sweets. Take your friend for a walk around the block. Hug, hold them. Massage their hand, stroke their hair. One friend of mine just held me in her lap while I cried. And when I was cried out, she loved on my kids for an hour and fielded their questions about death. Another brought smoothies to make sure I was eating something. Another dropped gin and cookies. Another loaded us up with a week’s worth of meals. Those acts of support are just as meaningful as words. When you lose someone, when their body dies, you need aliveness all around you.
Last but not least, grief doesn’t have an end date. So the most meaningful support you can offer is consistent, small acts of care over time. A text or phonecall over the months or years means so much. Giving your friend permission to let their grief have space in your relationship in perpetuity is a blessing and the most generous act of friendship.
Again, I want to emphasize that shame has no place here. For you or for me. We can only do better when we know better. I hope this sheds some light on a situation where it is so hard to know what to do or say. Offered with love from my heart to yours. xx