Years ago one of my close friends told me that I should write about what NOT to say to those who are grieving. She stood by my side after my husband's death and heard first hand many of the offensive things that were spoken from the lips of others. Initially these comments angered and offended me. However, in time, these feelings slowly subsided as I began to realize that most of these offences were coming out of ignorance. The intention, I have chosen to believe at least, was often well meaning but the timing of the delivery or the content of what was said was off.
It was seven years ago that I lost my first husband in a tragic plane crash. At the time I was a second grade teacher and just the other day I came across the letters that my students wrote after his death. So now, at the thoughtful request of my dear friend Paige and with inspiration from my former seven year old students, I provide a list of what not to say:
"Dear Mrs. W,
I feel so bad for you. You must be sad.
PS. it is snowing in Colorado"
Although you may be excited about what is going on in your own life and think it may be helpful to share, do not do so unless he or she who is grieving asks. The beginning stages of grief are lonely and hearing about what is going on in the world can be rather isolating. It can make one feel like life goes on for others without so much of a thought about the person who died. Also, stating the obvious in that the grieving person is sad and has experienced a tragedy is awkward. I remember people standing in front of me saying what a tragedy it all was while staring into my eyes. It made me feel the pressure of having to console them and assure them that I was okay in order to ease their minds.
"Dear Mrs. W,
I know how you feel. My cat had passed out and I had to stay home for three days.
The saying, "I know how you feel" can be incredibly infuriating. Although you may think you feel as though you understand, you do not. Each person, relationship, and situation is unique. Treat them as such.
"Dear Mrs. W,
I am so sorry that Mr. W. died. But on the bright side you still have Bristol (dog).
Pointing out the positives in another person's life in the midst of their grief is an incredibly common mistake. Although I loved my dog Bristol, it in no way took away the pain of losing my husband. We can laugh at how ridiculous these words of a seven year old are, but I can assure you that many adults made similar comments. I was told to be grateful that I was young and would likely marry again. I was told to be happy about the love that I had experienced. Although statements such as these can be true in time, they seem to devalue the person who died and the feelings that the griever is experiencing.
"Dear Mrs. W,
I feel really bad for you. I know how you feel. My Grandpa died before I was even born.
Comparing a death that you have experienced or have heard about to the death of another is not fair or correct. Again, treat each person and each situation as unique. You may have had a similar experience, but you do not know all that the person feels.
These letters from my former students now provide me with laughter when I read them. However, the similar comments that I remember being made by adults do not. Everyone that I know who has grieved the loss of someone close has been offended by another's often well meaning comment. We are uncomfortable with pain and we want to lessen it with our words. So often the words that end up being said are those that attempt to console the one speaking them instead of the one who is grieving. Think about it. Be strong enough to show up and physically be there. Do not avoid the person or try to fix it with your words. Just be there. Some of these sayings may be true and perhaps can even be said at a later point, but not initially. Commit to reaching out in the months and years following by learning to listen and by learning to be a faithful friend when they need you.