Grief is a deep emotion that needs to be expressed. It has a life of its own and the chemicals that course through your body when you are grieving, and you cannot avoid the stress and sadness associated with it. Most people really need and appreciate family and friends who can acknowledge the difficult feelings that accompany grief and offer meaningful help.
The first thing you want to do, of course, is to offer condolences. Sympathy, comfort, and consolation are the intentions behind condolences, so you want to sound concerned for the person who is grieving, and you also want to sound authentic. Avoid cliches like “I’m sorry for your loss,” which is what the police say on TV. You can say something like “I was so sorry to hear that John died last week.” Be straightforward and don’t avoid words like “dead,” and “died,” unless you are part of a community for whom phrases like “passed,” have special meaning, as is true in the Black community and some Christian sects.
So, your conversation might begin with “I wanted to tell you, I’ve been thinking about you since John died and I’m so sorry you have to go through this.” The second thing you want to do is ask how the person is doing. But you don’t want to ask this in some vague general way since a grieving person is often battered by different feelings on an hourly basis. It’s best to ask, “How are you doing this morning?” or afternoon, etc. This gives the grieving person permission to talk about their feelings and shows them that you are not afraid of how the conversation may go and, even if they cry, you are willing to sit with their response. Do not, however, say things like “I know how you feel.” No one can claim to know how another person feels, so you can say “I can’t imagine you feel,” opening the door for the bereaved to fill you in on how they are responding, which might be quite different than how you would respond to the same thing.
Often our own fear of death prevents us from feeling open to the grief of others. My co-author Dohrea Bardell lost her husband just a few months ago. I asked her to help me draft this article and she pointed out that when you converse with a bereaved person, you are doing a good deed, a “mitzva” in the Jewish community, which will be remembered for a long time. She says, “It is a special bonding time that will actually deepen the relationship.”
If you aren’t really open to whatever happens in the conversation, Dori suggests that you just send a text or an email that says something like “I’m thinking about you and sending you love and light (or hugs and kisses, or prayers, depending on the nature of your relationship), you could just call and say, “I just wanted to check up on you and make sure you are holding on.”
The website www.grief.com has a nice list of things to say and not say. They suggest that you follow your condolences with a favorite memory you have of the person who died, or a couple of words like “he was such an amazing brother to you,” or “she was an inspiration to me.” You might add that you hope the bereaved finds comfort and peace in the memory of this wonderful person.
Whether you are up for a deeper conversation or not, the next thing you can do is to offer help. You can just ask “Is there anything I can do?” Just be sure you are asking that from the heart. Since grieving people often feel at a loss to think of something you can do, it helps if you know them well, to offer something specific. “Would you like me to take over speaking to people at work?” “Can I pick up the kids from school? “I was just thinking of making a pot of soup (casserole, bread, cookies) “Can I bring some over for you?” Sometimes, just company is perfect. “Can I drop by for a cup of tea?” (Dori’s favorite). If you are brave enough, you could offer to go with them to the mortuary or cemetery, or, if you are not that brave, offer to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy.
Dori also notes that some people are just unable to deal with illness and death, so they just disappear. “And it is OK…people can only handle what they are ready to handle.” She also says to focus on and cherish those who are actually around. This is especially true in the weeks and months that follow the funeral. People gather around a grieving person for the funeral or memorial and then they leave. Now, after everyone leaves it is so important to maintain contact. Mark your calendar to check in again in a week or two. “Just calling to see if you need anything” or “is there anything I can help you with? How are you doing today?”
Grief.com also warns against phrases like “At least she lived a long time,” “He’s in a better place,” or “She brought this on herself,” which are unlikely to be of comfort. They suggest that you not say anything about how long it’s been or suggest that it’s time to get past the pain. Grief takes as long as it takes. There is no reliable timetable, and there is no evidence for stages either. I would avoid referring to stages of grieving or the need to get to “acceptance.” Everyone has a different timetable. Grief.com also reminds us that asking the person to be “strong,” or pointing out that the person is “strong,” is not helpful, especially to people who are really strong. They may not feel strong at the moment and need your acknowledgment that it is okay.
Finally, avoid saying anything that is designed to “fix” how the person feels, or explain why they experienced the loss (even things like “God must have wanted her with him.”) Admit that you don’t know what to do or say to make it better. Another site, www.joincake.com comments on greeting cards and warns against sending the usual sympathy cards . The author suggests you find a blank card and write a personal note about a memory of the deceased. You can write “I just heard that John died, and I can’t imagine what you feel like. John was such a sweet, loving person.” Or “I was saddened to hear that John died. I will never forget his beautiful smile and bright eyes. He was always so helpful to me when…”
My friend Kathy taught at a private high school in L.A. for many years. She told me that students died every year she was there and the other students were always distraught. She would suggest that the nicest thing they could do, would be to write to the parents of the child that died and tell them something they really liked about their son or daughter. Say things like “Jack made us all laugh every morning in chemistry class,” or “I had lunch in the cafeteria every day with Jane. We bonded over our delight when they served Thai.” Or “I am terrible in Spanish, and Lulu always helped me study for the quizzes.”
Here is a set of five points that summarize this post:
1. Acknowledge the loss and the stress associated with it.
2. Offer your heartfelt condolences while avoiding cliches.
3. Offer a memory or comment on the good that came from the life of the deceased.
4. Ask how the bereaved is doing this morning or today or “now.”
5. Ask if the person needs anything or offer some specific help (best if you can).