COMMENTARY 988.1: Saying the Right Thing

When someone you care about is suffering greatly, what’s the right thing to say to make him or her feel better?

There are all sorts of traumas that can send us to the darkest dungeons of despair – the death of a loved one, being raped, getting a divorce, losing a limb, seeing a child sent to jail or on drugs. Whatever the cause, when we become so despondent or depressed that we start wondering whether life is worth living, we need a real friend.

I’m no expert in conveying condolences, but one thing I’ve learned is that trying to command, cajole, or convince a broken person to repress, reject, or disguise his or her feelings is more harmful than helpful.

Telling someone whose loved one died not to feel bad because “She lived a long life” or “At least he’s not suffering anymore” might offer some consolation, but it doesn’t go to the core of the hurt or acknowledge the loss of the person left to deal with the tragedy’s aftermath.

Even less helpful are remarks like “It’s not as bad as it seems,” “It could have been worse,” or “You’ll get over it.” However well-intentioned, attempts to give a grieving person a long-term perspective probably won’t work while the pain’s still intense and fresh.

Worst of all, telling a person to “Cheer up” or “Look at the bright side” as if the individual simply has to flip a switch implies that the person ought to be handling his or her sorrow better.

Finally, what makes us think we’re helping a grief-stricken friend by using his or her tragedy as an excuse to talk about ourselves? (“I know how you feel. I lost my dad last year” or “You’ll get over it. I did.”)

In the early stages, grief isn’t just an attitude, it’s an affliction. It can’t be turned off or toned down. It often has to run its course. Yes, there may be times when we can redirect a friend to other matters and more positive thoughts, but generally he or she has to experience and work through all the natural emotions that flow from the calamity including self-pity, resentment, anger, and fear.

The bottom line is, this is tricky territory. Most of us just aren’t as good as those who write Hallmark cards.

On the other hand, it’s just as bad if we become so self-conscious about saying the wrong thing that we fail to be there at all. All we can do is speak through our hearts, hoping our awkward words will be forgiven and our good intentions appreciated.

The best antidotes to hopeless grief are sincere expressions of love and support that prove life is worth living.

What do you think? Is there a right thing to say? What have you said or written to someone that meant a lot to that person? If you’ve ever experienced deep grief, what did someone do that uplifted you?

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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Comments 13

  1. I think the phrase “I’m sorry for your loss” should be banned for all time. That is the most meaningless thing a person can say. Also the cards “with deepest sympathy” are just plain awful. Also, don’t say “is there anything I can do?” Just DO something. Say, “Helen, I would like to drop by Saturday and walk your dog and take your grand kids for some ice cream, so you can rest.” Usually an extremely grief stricken person can’t make even basic decisions. If you are good friends, just start HELPING! If you don’t know the person very well, you could still offer to do something. Intense grief is so overwhelming it’s best not to ask the person “what can I do?” They just have to think of something then. And….if you go visit them, you don’t really have to say anything. Just sit…..listen…..hold…..cry…..make a cup of tea……

  2. Thank you, Michael, for raising this important topic. People often worry that they will not know the right words to say when facing someone grieving. The truth is, there are no “right words.” Nothing can take away the pain, but that is okay. We do not need to take away people’s pain in order to help. Acknowledging a person’s loss or struggle can be supportive. Walk beside someone who is struggling and give the person time to grieve. Our calm and quiet presence can provide some stability. I agree with Kristin that offering specific things you can do is good. I disagree that saying “I’m sorry for your loss” is always bad. It depends on the context. But saying “I’m sorry” or “I don’t know what to say” can be helpful in that those words express our understanding that there is a loss even if we do not understand the depth of it. Do not be afraid of people’s tears. Crying can be a helpful release and grieving is a normal part of our lives. And when we walk beside each other during hard times, we learn how to carry joy and grief together.

    I write occasional columns on related topics. If interested, check out my blog at http://www.nancyberns.com.

    Nancy Berns

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  3. This is so true. Just telling someone that you’re sorry and a giving a hug can mean the world. I remember when I lost a baby, well meaning people kept telling me, “you’ll have another” or “you can try again”, but you don’t want “another” and trying again is the last thing on your mind … but then there were those people that were so lost for something to say that they avoided me completely. And that was a terribly lonely feeling!
    I had to keep reminding myself that those who spoke to me about it were trying to be kind, and that it wasn’t easy for them. And you’re right – there is NO right thing to say – these situations go beyond words – even those from a Hallmark writer.
    Elizabeth Edwards shared, in a speech in 2007, “If you know someone who has lost a child or lost anybody who’s important to them, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died, they didn’t forget they died. You’re not reminding them. What you’re reminding them of is that you remember that they lived, and that’s a great, great gift.”

  4. Thinking back on my parents deaths, I recall most everyone saying all of the above sentiments and intuitively deflecting those probably considered insensitive, “She’s in a better place.” (Really? Instead of here with me?) Truth is there are no words to convey at the time to make someone feel better, they will feel awful and to just acknowledge it. “Sorry you are going through this, let me know if I can help in any way.” I have to say, the most appreciated comments are the warm memories that people would convey, a good deed the loved one performed, the untold funny exchanges, anything to remind the grievers of the life loved and lost. Those are the best! Which is why when I sign a condolence card now, I almost always put something like “Hoping that warm and happy memories of the loss of your loved one will replace the pain your family is experiencing during this difficult time.”

  5. I find myself caught up in this – I’ve been there attitude. I have lost both my parents, a child, numerous friends, had many surgeries of different types literally from head to toe. But what I have found is there is someone who is hurting worse than you and people respond to your comments in different ways. What I have learned to say is I will pray for you and keep you in my thoughts.

  6. The best response is to try to be empathic to what you sense the other person is feeling. Saying you are sorry is more empathy to yourself, if indeed you are sorry. Helping can help, but first empathy.

    Dr. Moffic

  7. Being there for them to show support is the most important and meaningful gift you can provide and don’t stop after 3 months or 6 months, or even a year. Grief isn’t over by what date shows on a calendar. So often “friends” disappear soon afterward thinking you don’t need them anymore when in reality you do. I like to check in on them from time to time and help in any way I can sometimes by just being with them and listening. Grief is not something you get over…ever. You begin to live your life with it in time. I wish them peace and comfort and hope that their memories of their loved one will make them smile instead of cry someday. Dominic Murgido, Founder: sudSSpirit Bereavement Support Group.

  8. This is a club no on wants to be in, but until you are, you probably won’t be able to truly empathize with the person or family in sorrow. Send a card, make a phone call, just being there, bringing food, running errands, help to make arrangements, crying with the bereaved, listening, sending notes are all good things. Being there months (and in some cases years) after the loved on is gone is also a very loving thing to do…you don’t “get over” the loss of your loved one, but you certainly do get used to it.

    I too see nothing wrong with the phrase ‘I am sorry for your loss’

  9. Thank you for this important post. To be honest, I don’t remember much of what was said to me when I suddenly lost my husband several years ago. What I do remember are the people who cared enough to come to the wake and funeral, the people who cared for me in the days that followed, and the people who are still my friends, even when I am the person who makes an uneven number at a party. The teenagers he taught cared enough to come to the funeral. A couple of them even spoke and shared memories. It is the caring that still warms my heart.

  10. If you must say something, be honest and genuine, help them remember their loved one and relay how much you will miss them, or tell them you wish you had the words to take away the pain. The most important thing is how we listen. Give the other person the opportunity to vent and show them that you are truly there for them. Choose your words carefully, we don’t ever get over anything, we learn to work through the pain and over time it becomes easier to bare. If you really care about someone, find a bereavement class or group and go with them. Work through the steps with them, saying your sorry for the loss is a kind gesture but it is limited. If you truly care, check in with them on holidays and special days where the loss comes up, it sometimes feels like it just happened even if its been a decade. Oh yeah … Be consistent! Nothing is worse then someone who says I’m here for you and then doesn’t make contact for 6 months.

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