I’d like to add to a conversation started here at Huffington Post, and continued here by the very thoughtful Julie Gillis. In the original Huffpo post, Christy Heitger-Ewing lists 8 things you should NOT say to someone grieving the death of someone close to them, including, “Cheer up. Your loved one who died wouldn’t want you to be sad,” “S/he’s in a better place,” and “Cherish all the wonderful memories. They will give you peace.” She ends with,
8. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now.”
I would encourage you to do just that. Stop and think about how you would feel if you were faced with the griever’s circumstances. Consider their feelings. Contemplate their pain. Imagine their struggle. Doing so will spark empathy in you. And empathy is the best thing you can offer someone who is hurting because when you empathize, the right words come more freely.
I actually think this is a sort of ok response. It’s honest, anyway. It may not make the person feel better, but the person is not going to feel better anyway.
Julie writes about the need for us as a culture to bring death into the public sphere. We need to acknowledge death. Talking about it is a great start.
What I would add to any conversation about death, and what I want to say in response to Heitger-Ewing’s critics, those who demand, “well, then what SHOULD we say?” is that death is scary. Grief doesn’t feel “good,” and nothing anyone can do or say will make it “better.” What we need is to bring grieving itself into the cultural comfort zone. We need to bring the FACT of suffering itself into the cultural comfort zone.
Do imagine. Do feel. It’s not that we need to feel “better.” It’s more that we need to FEEL better.
Our uneasiness with other people’s sadness at loss is just a sign of our own fear.
Your grieving friend may not be the best person to enter into that conversation with right at that moment. They are doing the work. They are IN it — whether they are numb, despondent, angry or pleading. Our job as the friend is just to be. Appreciate the softness of the moment. FEEL it.
This is real.
Real is good.
Your fear won’t hurt the grieving person unless you run from it… which is what those pat responses represent.