What to say to a grieving person

I have often heard people remark that it is a struggle to find the right words to say to a person that is grieving. Now that I’m on the other side of this equation, that is, now that I am the one grieving, let me clue you in on a little secret: the “right” words don’t exist. When you’re losing someone you love, the only possible words that would make you feel better are, “We’ve found a cure!” Anything short of that doesn’t hold my interest.

Be aware when you approach someone that is going through a tragedy that even the most well-intentioned words can have the opposite effect. For example, I absolutely hate it when people ask, “How’s your Mom?” In fact, I dread this question with every fiber of my being. Because again, there are no words that will make this problem better. The only possible outcome to someone asking this is an awkward conversation where I stumble over saying that she’s dying, and try desperately to figure out how I can shift the conversation to any other subject but this one. I wish people would stop asking, and yet, if I knew a friend’s mother was dying, I would feel like the most selfish, callous cow if I didn’t ask about her from time to time. And I realize that everyone who has ever asked me has had the same thought. They just want me to know that they care, that they’re trying to be supportive. And instead, it makes me feel terrible when they ask. This is the reality of talking about tragedy: no one is ever going to feel comfortable with it in their lives.

Although I think, “How’s your Mom?” is a relatively innocent question and somewhat unavoidable, there are other things people say that I wish they would keep to themselves. Here are a few of the most common:

“At least she’s not in any pain.”

Really? Did the doctor tell you that? Did anyone tell you that? Don’t say something unless you are 100% sure it’s true, because now I feel compelled to explain that actually she could be in a lot of pain and we don’t really know because she can’t communicate. Now, hasn’t this conversation been so much fun?

“You know your Mom’s there. I’m sure she still knows what’s going on.”

Great. So she’s aware of the fact that she has no control of her own body, can’t speak and can’t make any decisions for herself. Truthfully, I would sleep better if I knew that she was in a blissful oblivion somewhere in her mind.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

Maybe that’s true, but right now hearing that statement makes me want to punch you in the face. Please, explain to my what reason there is that I have to lose my Mom. Explain why everyone else gets to have lunch dates with their mothers, why everyone else can call and ask their mothers for advice and have them baby-sit their grandchildren, but mine is gone? Take your bullshit sentiments elsewhere, please and thank you.

On average, when I find myself out with people, my main wish is that we just don’t talk about my mother at all. When pain sits in your brain for most of every day, the only thing you really want from people is for them to help you forget, and remind you of everything else that is wonderful in life. I will forever be thankful to friends and family who bypass over the negative and instead tell a funny story about their roommate, or a really dirty joke, or ask if I want to go see a movie. These are moments that heal the soul, not the ones where I have to try and figure out the “proper” way to respond to someone telling me that my mother must be so happy I’m home. (Ummm… if by “happy” you mean she can’t respond in any way to my presence.)

There is only one time in my memory when I actually felt a hint of relief from speaking to someone directly about my Mom. My cousin and I were at a bar and, perhaps influenced by the alchohol, she brought up the situation with my mother. She seemed at a loss for words and I finally said, “yeah, it sucks.”

Her eyes latched onto that statement and she said, “You’re right. It sucks. It FUCKING sucks. It REALLY. FUCKING. SUCKS.”

And those are perhaps the most accurate, most helpful words that anyone has said to me, and I am thankful to have heard them. If I am ever in the position of trying to comfort a friend that has lost someone, I will tell them, with all the love in my heart, that “This REALLY FUCKING SUCKS.” Then I will tell a dirty joke and ask them to a movie.

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11 Thoughts on “What to say to a grieving person

  1. Tere Payne on April 30, 2013 at said:

    You are so right! “Cuss” words provide the only accurate description. But the one decent choice we have is just to keep loving.

  2. Brenda Cordell Snead on April 30, 2013 at said:

    Caroline,
    You may not remember but your Mother and I are first cousins. It has been more than ten years since we last saw each other but we were facebook friends as she was able and now your Grandmother keeps me up to date.I will always have many fond memories of when we were children and life was simple. When you see her please give here my love.

  3. polly on April 30, 2013 at said:

    well said. it sucks. truly truly sucks. love you!

  4. Julie Harvin on May 1, 2013 at said:

    It totally sucks…we all know this. But you know that I love you!

  5. Stacey on May 1, 2013 at said:

    Hi. I’m a lurking reader. That shit REALLY DOES FUCKING SUCK. I know you won’t, but I hope you feel better. Go drink lots of beers in your beautiful kitchen. xoxo, pretty lady.

    • Caroline on May 6, 2013 at said:

      Hello lurker! :) Thanks for the comment, I will take you up on the suggestion!

  6. II was sixteen when my mom died, and I was SO fortunate to have amazing friends who simply said, “This SUCKS.” and, “We love you.” They dragged me out of the house that summer for milkshakes and movies and beach time, and I am thankful, eleven years later. Somehow, teenagers knew how to do the right thing.

    • Caroline on May 6, 2013 at said:

      Love this! I think sometimes adults just make it too complicated and are too concerned with sounding “wise”

  7. Caitlin Jean on May 2, 2013 at said:

    Two things I despise while I’ve been grieving the past couple of months: “How are you?” and “I’m sorry”
    The former : I can’t answer honestly because I FEAR that question, FEAR as in Forget Everything And Run.
    The latter : I don’t believe that person is truly sorry as they’re not in my situation and can’t possibly understand how I feel.
    I’ve gotten to the point where I wanna scream my lungs out “STOP feeling sorry for me!” so yes realizing that a situation Sucks! is the breaking point.

  8. Laura Lund on July 6, 2013 at said:

    Caroline, I wish you and your family nothing but peace. It is very odd to ask Henry, ‘How’s she doing?’ I know how she is……doing. And I miss her very much! But I have my crazy Fair memories and I make my self smile till I cry leaving her home. She IS one in a million, and I am so lucky to know her! Love Laura

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