What to Say When You Don't Know What to Say
Have you ever noticed that the modern world hasn't done a good job of equipping us to handle death, longterm illness, sadness, or grief very well? Most of us are unsure what to say or how to be around someone who's had a loss. Sometimes, avoidance is the standard response.
Ever the optimist, I believe we can do better. Tragically, we're not taught how to handle this; our parents don't likely know, so how could they have taught us? School often seems to skip over the practical lessons in favor of the more esoteric.
I'm not sure how I got so lucky, but I have a lot of people in my life who somehow know just the right thing to say. Later, I'll share some of the most meaningful things people have shared with me. What a lesson this has been for me, both in being a receiver and in having models for this surely practiced art.
If you're struggling to find the right words, consider asking one of the following questions:
“How are you feeling...today?"
“What's on your mind...today?”
“What feels overwhelming...today?”
“What do you miss or feel angry about...today?”
“What are some things you need to get done...today?”
And then, wait and listen. Sit with any discomfort you may feel. Be with them. Don't offer a silver lining. If that's to be done, it's their place, not yours.
Know that it's never too late to send a card, write an email, give a call, or in some way show that they're in your thoughts. One of the most helpful things I hear from my best friend is, "How are you feeling today?" She knows that grief isn't a direct line, nor is it orderly. It comes and goes and shows up in different ways. And she always reminds me that there's no one way to grieve and that however I'm doing it is good enough.
That's comforting since mine doesn't look like how I've seen it depicted in movies. Even though I'm not wailing on the floor, my flame isn't as bright as it usually is. I'm more tired these days and sometimes can't seem to bring myself do all the things I usually can.
I'm struggling to be okay with that. More accustomed to over-functioning, this is foreign and comes with feelings of guilt. Thankfully, my husband is understanding and supportive; he reminds me that doing whatever I need to do for myself will be better for our whole family.
So, how can you be there for someone? How can you figure out what to say when you don't know what to say? Look inside yourself. Be present. You'll find answers. Sometimes, it can be helpful to see ideas and learn from others. Even if it doesn't resonate, it may give you a starting place.
As promised, below are some of the many meaningful things people shared with me after my dad died in October.
My heart breaks for you, and I smile at your courage to share and express this moment.
Life, indeed, can seem long. May the joys that make it feel short prevail for you.
Even though he didn't know how to show it, your dad loved you very much. He was happiest when you were around. (Note from me: I believe that because I noticed he had that reaction to my daughter/his granddaughter.)
Know that I hold you tenderly in my heart, and that I celebrate with you the journey you made as an adult with your dad, and the extraordinary gift of that last visit.
Loss and grief can be straightforward and expected as well as surprising and mysterious. I just want you to know that I see you in all of it and I want to support you through all of it...So, here’s to the men who make our lives both possible and highly complicated...who love us the best they are able, and who we will never forget.
I will keep your family in my thoughts and prayers as you celebrate Thanksgiving and the upcoming holidays with an empty place at the table.
I am glad you are writing and feeling and writing your feelings and feeling your feelings. I can tell you are finding meaning in your journey...I wish you continued meaning in your journey of grief. You are not alone.
We are just wanting you to know that you remain in our thoughts and our hearts. The first holiday season after the loss of one's family can be filled with unexpected memories and feelings. (Note from me: This was in the second card I received from our Unitarian Universalist Caring Team.)
We are each of us angels with only one wing: to fly we need only embrace each other.
Grieving is a process and impacts us differently. Tho I've been a psychotherapist for many years, working through grief is still challenging. My condolences to you. May you continue to connect with your beauty, strengths, and joy. What a gift.
My heart is reaching out to surround you, Olivia and David at this tender time. Cosmic love hugs all around!
I pray your dad has found peace and is filled with all of your love wherever his spirit flies.
See what I mean? I'm beyond blessed to have such thought-full and heart-full people in my life. My wish is for us all to be so skilled and willing to be present with those we love and care about and for those with whom we share community.
How do you feel about this area of your life? Do you express your feelings well? Do you think people feel your care for them? As for me, I'm a work in progress. And I'm getting used to that. Maybe one day, I'll (have recovered enough from my perfectionism to) even like it. 😉
P.S. My family and I recently went to a fun concert—Andy Grammer. He's got many songs I love to sing, including Workin' On It, (here are the lyrics), which reminds me that I am indeed, workin' on it.
Photo credit: Unsplash