My dad died of motor neurone disease last April. He was 62. I was 26, struggling to finish my teacher training in a secondary school and utterly overwhelmed and underprepared for what was about to befall my family. Grief is more painful than anything physical I’ve experienced, and the weeks and months that followed my dad’s death were a blur of agonisingly difficult and frequently unhelpful conversations.
Helpfully, my dad project-managed his own death as much as he could (and wrote a book about it, go check it out: ‘How to die well without god’, Robert Keats), and organised a lot of his funeral, which took some pressure off us. It was around the time of his funeral and the weeks afterwards that my mum, sister and I shared some of the insensitive, inappropriate and down-right batshit things people had said to us since Dad’s death. And so we started to make a mental note of the more outrageous sentiments in the name of ‘comforting’ a grieving person and I began compiling a list of things to say to someone who’s grieving – or more importantly (and sadly more common) a list of things NOT to say to someone who’s grieving.
And so here we are.
I am somewhat disappointed that I feel the need to create this ‘self help’ guide in the name of not being a dick, but I hope it can help those who may have recently experienced a bereavement, or those who may be trying to comfort someone who has lost someone. I also feel like being told what NOT to say is a bit like being told to not look down; you want to look down. But this could be a solid list to bear in mind when we find ourselves in difficult, sad situations surrounding death, and hopefully encourage people to think empathetically, practically and nicely.
Being nice is underrated.
Don’t be a dick.
Things not to say when someone dies:
‘How are you?’
I’m a mess. I’m devastated. I’m sleep deprived. I’m abandoned. I’m drowning. I’m not eating and I’m not hungry. I’m trying to keep my family afloat but I can barely breathe. I feel like I’ve experienced an amputation. My heart is shattered. Don’t you dare expect an, ‘I’m alright I suppose’ or, even worse a, ‘Yes, I am fine’.
‘At least you saw it coming, it’s easier than a sudden death’/‘At least it was a sudden death and they didn’t see it coming’
I have discussed this with a few people who have experienced death in very different forms. Death is shit, no matter how much time you have to prepare for it. Perhaps it’s better for the person in question to be hit by a bus one day than suffer and know it’s coming from a way off, but honestly I think it’s best to avoid this whole topic with the recently bereaved.
‘At least you’re an adult now, it would be worse if you were just a kid’
I don’t feel like an adult. Yes, I got a chance to ask him more ‘grown up’ questions than I would have if I was eight, and got to spend valuable time with my parent, but watching my dad die made me feel as vulnerable, naive and helpless as a baby.
‘At least you have some lovely memories of him’
Yes, I do, and that’s great. But now that’s all I have, and I want more than that. So, please don’t remind me that all I have left is pictures in my brain.
‘I miss them too’
This is tricky, as I know it is meant with good intentions - read the room on this one! However, this is not a competition, but I guarantee you DO NOT MISS THEM AS MUCH AS I DO RIGHT NOW. This is not the time to receive sympathy, it is the time to provide it.
‘I know you miss them’
Unless you’re in an identically sinking boat, you can’t know what it feels like. Telling me, ‘you know how difficult it is, and how much I miss them’ makes me feel like my feelings are somehow invalidated.
‘You’ll find someone else’ (said to my grieving mother)
‘You’ve got to look cheerful because you’ll upset other people’
‘I’m always at the end of the phone if you need me’
So is the pizza delivery. In the depths of depression and loss, I am not going to ring you and ask for you to make me a cuppa and hoover my house. Unless you really want a hysterical, blubbering call at 3:30am. Practical help and taking initiative, even if they are politely declined, is so much better than an empty ‘call me if you need me’.
‘Which stage of grief are you currently sitting at? I’ll assume anger from your expression’
The stages of grief are horse shit. I am currently in equal parts denial, anger, bargaining and depression. Acceptance is a long way off. So unless you are a qualified psychologist please don’t talk about this.
‘You’ll need to move on at some point’
NOT TODAY, SATAN.
‘I know how you feel, my cat/grandmother/great uncle died recently/4 years ago’
No. Nope. Nuh uh. Of course we all experience loss and grief, but to compare these feelings to others’ is in no way helpful. This is especially compounded if your loss is ‘less’ (I use this hesitantly because feeling sad is feeling sad) i.e. a pet, or even worse, a close shave ‘my mum was in a car accident (but is alright now….)’. Comparing notes on coping mechanisms can be helpful, but saying what you’ve lost is as important RIGHT NOW is inappropriate.
‘Why are you having counselling? I just got over it by myself’
Counselling is a valuable resource when coming to terms with the death of someone close to you, especially when they are diagnosed with a terminal illness and have the potential to try and prepare for it as best you can (and with them if it’s an option). Do not underestimate the power of talking and professional therapy, it can change - and save - lives.
So there are some little snippets of anti-wisdom. The next post will be some practical advice on what to do to help someone bereaved, and some helpful things you can say. Hopefully this list better explains how some sentiments shared, even with the best intentions, can be emotionally damaging to the grief-stricken friend or relative. Please don’t be offended if your attempt to comfort or support is received negatively - do not blame the bereaved. Rethink your approach, and try to appreciate what someone hurting from a seemingly invisible pain may need to hear instead.
And remember, don’t be a dick.