As a society, we are crippled by the concept of death. Grief, following the death of a loved one, can be such a lonely challenge to endure – but it needn’t be. Having the support of your friends can help to take the edge off the pain. But they don’t teach this kind of stuff in school so sometimes, despite their best intentions, the well-meaning remarks of friends can actually make things worse. The last thing you need to hear when you’re in the depths of despair is “You’ll be OK”. Yes, of course you will be OK. But at that very moment you are not. What you need is compassion, not a meaningless cliché.
When my father died, it almost destroyed me. I’m not joking. I honestly don’t know how it’s possible to feel as bad, as empty and as crushed as I did and to somehow still survive. I was trapped in a black hole. I felt completely alone, but I didn’t want anyone to reach into my darkness either. I pushed people away. It’s such a confusing, bewildering and miserable thing to experience. I remember after a couple of months, going on a weekend away with some girlfriends. I managed to keep the black hole contained, most of the time. But there was one occasion when I could no longer fend it off, and the darkness just flooded out. We were walking along, and without warning I started bawling uncontrollably. My father was dead, and I just couldn’t stop crying. I apologised to my friends and walked away, looking for a place to retreat and get a hold of myself. I turned a corner and sat down on a bench, but instead of subsiding I was engulfed in sadness, collapsing in a heap of body-shaking tears. My friends peeked around the corner, their faces contorted with anguish. I could see they wanted to help me, to comfort me. And even though that’s exactly what I needed, I was sending out a powerful force-field signalling them to stay away.
I finally got my shit together and we carried on walking, as though nothing had happened. And I know it was just as bad for them as it was for me. I’m not telling this story to shame my friends. It was a terrible moment for all of us. I tell it to demonstrate how tricky a minefield grief is, even amongst the closest of friends. It is a harrowing abyss of ugly, difficult emotions for the person experiencing it. And a sickening feeling of impotence and helplessness for the people around you. Even though I know what grief feels like, I am still completely at sea when a loved one loses a loved one. I still don’t know what to say or do. I still feel helpless. And I know that many others in that situation feel the same way.
I can’t write anything that could ever take away the pain of someone’s grief. But I do want to try and alleviate the debilitating feelings of inadequacy most of us feel in the face of someone else’s bereavement. I want to open a dialogue, to start talking about it, in the hope of making it less scary. There is no “etiquette” handbook for what to say (or not say) to someone in mourning. No two situations are the same, and everyone will react to the death of a loved one in their own way. But I feel pretty safe in saying that there are a few things you should try not to say. Each heading in this ejo is something that was actually said to a grieving person. I know they were heartfelt thoughts from people struggling to know what to say, but these platitudes are just not helpful to someone who is in pain.
The day my father died, the worst day of my life, someone told me, ‘Your Dad would want you to be strong, for your Mum.’ Wow, thanks, but I really didn’t need to hear that. What was said stayed with me through the years. Now, if I’m comforting a friend experiencing the heartache of grief, the one thing I do feel comfortable saying to them is, ‘You don’t have to be strong, it’s OK to fall apart if you need to’. Because the reality is that you are going to fall apart in some way. I spoke with several friends who have all lost someone close to them – a parent, a friend, a spouse – and they were kind enough to share their experiences in the hope of helping you (and me) next time someone is in need of support.
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“He wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
“My first experience with death was when I was 14 and one of my best friends died. My mother was deeply unhelpful. ‘These things happen’, ‘he wouldn’t want you to be sad’, etc. All I wanted to do was shout and scream and listen to self-indulgent indie music with a roll-up between my fingers. A couple of decades later my father, also my best friend, snuffed it. I wanted to just talk about my amazing father and cry and mention his name more than once without people all looking a bit shifty and looking at the floor and not knowing what to do. I did not encounter these problems when I was 14. Apart from people also saying when dad died ‘he wouldn’t want you to feel like this’. FUCK HIM, HES DEAD!! I’m sad.”
“I understand how you feel.”
“I think the worst thing a friend said to me after both my parents were killed was, ‘I understand’. I know they thought it was comforting, but it wasn’t. They didn’t understand. How could they? I didn’t expect them to.”
“At least she’s no longer in pain.”
“When someone is grieving, say something meaningful or don’t say anything at all. The number of trite, hallmark kind of statements I got after my mother died made me want to punch people in the face. Yes, it’s true that ‘these things happen’, ‘it was for the best’ and ‘now she isn’t in any pain’ but it lacks any empathy at all to say these things.
“It will get easier.”
“What didn’t work for me was being told that someone knew exactly how I felt, and then getting advice on when I should feel better. Being told how you should feel, or how you will feel, is not helpful.”
“Life goes on.”
“Life goes on for you, but I just lost someone and life has stopped for me. Also, don’t push someone to talk about it unless they want to talk.”
“It’s time to get over it.”
“Even though time passes, grief doesn’t. You just learn to manage it better. I think once the funeral is over people just forget and move forward – but clearly not those who were deeply affected. There is almost an expectation that you should just move on and get over it, not understanding how deep and prolonged the impact can be. I think we need to all be more mindful, especially in the first year after someone has died, how hard it can be for those left behind.”
“Time heals all wounds.”
“I don’t believe that time heals. For me it’s a constant thing I carry with me every day and no matter how much time passes, it never gets easier. Especially important events in your life when you wish your parents were there to share it with you and hold your hand and tell you that they love you. They never saw me or my brother get married, or had the opportunity to meet their first grandchild.”
“These things happen.”
“Some people can be dismissive. The ones that reacted as if I had just told them that I’d lost my handbag. I don’t blame them for reacting like that. I guess some people don’t know how to respond or act in tragic circumstances. But it’s not helpful when you are grieving and upset.”
As you can see, hollow adages don’t work. So if you can help it, please don’t use them. What stood out after talking to my friends was that all everyone wanted was to have their grief acknowledged. Here is what they told me:
“The best way to help is to just be there. Offer some food, your company, your time. Ask what they need and be willing to listen.”
“Amongst the confusion, the numbness, the tears and anger I remember something one person said to me when I lost my parents. It was exactly what I needed to hear at that time. He said, ‘I have no idea what you are going through. This is the hardest thing you will ever have to go through in your life. I am here for you if you need me’. That was all I needed to hear. I wanted someone to acknowledge that it was hard and that they had no idea how I was feeling. I wanted someone to just hug me and not speak.”
“Just agree that the situation sucks and is incredibly shit.”
“One of the nicest (if you can call it that) things someone said, and they were a work colleague who I wasn’t good friends with, was “I heard your mother died and that’s really terrible.”
“People don’t know what to say or what to do. The answer is, just let them be. If they want to shout and scream, just hold them and let them. They don’t want any answers from you. You can’t give them any. Just listen, patiently, for as long as they need. There is no solution. Let them remember, let them tell you the most boring anecdotes, let them bore themselves with the memories, and most importantly let them be what you might consider a drama queen. Because when it happens to you, you’ll see that it’s not that dramatic after all. It’s life.”
What have been your experiences with offering or needing support after someone has died?