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An unfortunate side effect of aging is we lose people we love.
There’s no getting around it. I had a big, noisy and really fun extended family for most of my life, but the numbers dwindle every year. I try to remember how lucky I am to have had so many wonderful people in my life and not focus on the losses, but it’s hard.
I’ve noticed some people seem to know just the right thing to say to provide comfort to others who are hurting. Usually those are the people who experienced loss themselves at some point in the past. Others find the situation awkward and uncomfortable. They don’t know the best things to do or say, understandably. It’s hard to know how to console people who are grieving; this skill doesn’t come naturally to most of us.
When my Mother-In-Law passed away at age 53, a well-meaning family member called my husband on the phone to express her condolences. During the conversation she said she knew exactly how he felt because her cat died the same day. Ugh. Really? Comparing his beloved mom to a cat was hurtful, though he appreciated the call and the effort. When my friend’s brother with muscular dystrophy passed away at age 16, countless people made comments like, “He lived a lot longer than anyone thought he would” or “At least you have other siblings”. Neither of these statements is comforting, though I think most of us realize people say dumb things when uncomfortable and these comments are generally coming from the right place. But sometimes it’s better to say “I’m sorry” and leave it at that.
Here is some practical advice based on my experiences – I hope it is helpful.
Don’t make excuses about why you haven’t been in touch.
You may be busy at work, or just feel awkward. Whatever your reason for staying away, it’s your deal. Don’t make excuses to the bereaved, and especially don’t say you didn’t contact them because you thought they wanted to be alone. You have no idea how they feel or what they want. Reaching out is always appreciated, and it’s better to make the effort than not. They can choose not to answer the phone, email or text, but they will get the message that you care. If you are unsure and uncomfortable, do it anyway. You will want others to be there for you if you find yourself in a similar situation.
“Let me know if you need anything” is not a real offer
This statement puts the onus on the person grieving to reach out to ask for help. It is a kind and probably well-intended comment, but if you really want to do something, just do it. Bring a meal, donate to a charity, send a card or email, make a phone call. People don’t like to ask for help, but sometimes need it and generally greatly appreciate when others extend themselves.
Do not tell someone how they should grieve
Allow the mourner the freedom to grieve in a way that works for them. There are no “should’s” in this situation. Everyone grieves differently; some go to a sad, dark place, others seem simply numb, and still others keep themselves busy to avoid having to think too much. Some rid their homes immediately of memories, a stark contrast to those who insist everything stay exactly the same because they find it comforting to be surrounded by the memories. Don’t tell people what they should do or how they should behave after losing a loved one; let them do what they need to do to heal.
Don’t talk about how their loss affects you
When trying to comfort someone immediately following a death, it’s best not to bring up how you felt when you lost your loved one. This is not the time; Have those conversations another time. If you have stories of times you spent with the recently deceased, share them. Better, yet, write them down in a card so the memories can be read and reread later.
The bottom line
Just show up. If you don’t know what to say, offer a heartfelt hug. Simply being present is comforting in itself. If you want to offer words of support you can say, “I wish I knew what to say” or “I know how much you loved her/him”. A simple “I’m so sorry” is my personal favorite to show my respects.
Keep in mind that grief doesn’t end after the funeral – try to check in periodically, particularly during the holidays. Go out to lunch or bring dinner. Watch a move together. Six months down the road might be harder for the person grieving than immediately following the death as others moved on and the house is quiet. A few hours out of your day every so often is a wonderful gift to someone who lost a loved one.
originally posted March 10,2020
updated Feb 1, 2022