Today is the second anniversary of my mom’s death. It’s a day for thinking. Some thoughts are scattered and others are organized. This year, the anniversary of her death comes on the heels of several deaths within my circle of friends. I’ve seen a lot of Facebook posts and comments written to comfort the grieving. Some remind me of what I heard when my mom died and the tales friends have told of what was said to them during their times of grief.
In the spirit of bringing both help and hope, I share with you three tips on what not to say to a grieving friend.
Don’t make it about you
It’s OK to share a beloved memory you have of the deceased. It’s not OK to make your grief bigger than the person you’re consoling. My husband was 30 when his father died and what he remembers more than a decade later is the sheer number of people who came to comfort him only to unload their grief to the point that he had to comfort them. In my case, I was surprised by the number demanding that I locate items my mom had borrowed or gifts they had given her.
Don’t tell the grieving how to feel
It’s not your place to tell anyone to be strong or not to cry. Telling a kid to be strong for their mom or dad is unfairly placing an adult-size burden on the shoulders of a child. Telling a spouse how to act in front of his or her children is ridiculous. Everyone grieves differently. I can’t count the number of people who assured me it was OK to cry. I’m not a crier, and when I do cry, I like to do it all alone when locked in my bathroom so nobody sees or hears. I’m not about to cry in public just so others feel better.
Don’t ask questions to satisfy your own morbid curiosity
Death is a mystery, and mystery makes us uncomfortable. The armchair psychologist in me thinks it’s because if we know why someone died, we think we can prevent it from happening to us. Wrong. Death is inevitable. With that in mind, don’t ask the grieving how someone died or try to hint your way to the answer. This includes comments like, “I didn’t know he/she was ill” or “Was it expected?” You are not owed the details. I know it’s hard, but accept it.
What should you say?
In times of sorrow, we often find ourselves at a loss for words. That’s normal. You don’t have to say anything. I appreciated those willing to sit with me in silence or follow along as I shared random thoughts totally unrelated to my mom or her death. But if you want to say something, allow me to share the one phrase that meant the world to me as I was grieving. Spoken by my friend Victoria, who had lost her own mother in her 20s, these words carried a depth of wisdom I only hope to one day possess myself.
Upon seeing me at a social event, Victoria gave me the tightest of hugs and said, “I know this is hard. If you ever want to talk, I would love to be the one to listen. Just listen and nothing more.”
In an instant, Victoria spoke directly to my heart. She made my grief about me, gave me permission to feel however I wanted and – more than anything – told me I could come to her with my grief and get complete support. She didn’t say all those words but the weight of her words conveyed that meaning, and even now, it means the world to me.
So, if you find yourself in a position to comfort someone in grief, follow Victoria’s lead. Be willing to listen and leave it at that. Years later, your words will continue to bring them comfort just as Victoria’s have done for me.