Before my dad died of motor neurone disease last year, my gut reaction to news of death sounded something like, ‘Oh shit’ – or maybe a more elaborate, ‘Oh shit I’m so sorry… that’s so shit’ – and honestly, since experiencing real grief, I don’t think much has changed. Having run through some of the things I found hard to hear after my dad died (see: How Not To Be A Dick When Someone Dies), I’m going to share some of the more supportive and helpful things I was told in the difficult days and weeks after a devastating bereavement.
Of course everyone grieves and feels emotions in very different ways. There is still a problematic mood, amongst the British especially, that pushes death and the necessary conversations around the topic to the edges of reasonable conversation. We don’t like talking about death. Understandably, admitting our own mortality is a strange and scary subject and discussing The End can make for an effective conversation killer down the pub, but if we don’t talk about it, we don’t develop a language around it, and it’s that vocabulary that needs exercising if we’re going to be able to properly support people who are grieving. I also hope for people to mirror the language of those grieving; if they’re not religious then don’t talk about heaven (even if you believe it), if they use the words ‘died’ then use it too, not ‘lost’ or ‘passed’. To me, having people say I ‘lost’ my dad makes it sound like he’s wandering around Lidl.
So, what follows is a list of things that my close family and I either did or would have found helpful to hear when our loved one was dying, or after they had died. It is by no means exhaustive or appropriate for every death and every grieving person (or the person trying to comfort them), but hopefully it can help you fill that awkward, heart-wrenching silence when you receive the news that someone loved has died.
Things you should say when someone dies:
Rule number one of talking to someone whose close friend or relative has died: Say SOMETHING. Do NOT avoid the topic. Acknowledge the devastation, do not undermine it or sweep it away. Don’t cross the road away from them either, or hide behind the stationary display in the post office (I SEE YOU, CAROL). Have a conversation. Even if you’re awkward as hell and utterly stuck for what to do with yourself or what to say, for fucks sake, say something!
“How are you doing today?”
This is remarkably different to “how are you?”. Today is different to yesterday. It might not be any better, in fact it could be catastrophically worse, but when you’re drowning in sorrow it’s hard to think more than a half day at a time. Maybe hour by hour. So “how are you doing today” is a question of increments, little steps (in any direction) that are comparable to yesterday, and much easier to answer. “I slept better last night”, “I’ve eaten breakfast today”, “I’ve got to sort out probate this morning” are manageable scenarios less likely to induce existential dread. It also allows you, as someone with the potential to help the grieving person, find specific tasks to lend a hand with.
Or variations on the theme. I love a swear word, as you can tell. Having people express their fury and devastation at the idea that someone can be removed from this world is strangely comforting, even later down the line. I remember being hugged by a friend after my dad’s funeral and all they managed to whisper was, “Fuck, mate. Oh fuck,” and honestly it made me feel a little less alone. They could not comprehend what I was feeling, they could not imagine being in my position and it hurt them to even try.
“I don’t know what to say”
It’s okay to sit with someone quietly. Let them lead the conversation, if they want to. Don’t make them talk if they don’t want to. Admitting that you don’t have the answers can be quite peaceful; none of us know what to do, don’t pretend (but as mentioned above, don’t avoid the topic or divert it away from the Death Elephant in the room if they try to start a dialogue)
“What do you need?”
This is infinitely better than, “I’m here for you”. The answers could range from the very achievable,“I need a hug and a cup of tea,” to the slightly more demanding, “a new identify and a lift to the airport so I can run away.” Asking what someone needs lets them know you’re willing and ready to be proactive about this; they’re not alone, they’re going to get through this, you’re here with them. Be ready to follow it through; limber up for the hug of your life, pack pockets full of tissues and be prepared to do hoovering, washing up, run errands, or be an accessory to something illegal (but hopefully not immoral).
“Isn’t the weather changeable… the temporary traffic lights in town are a nightmare… booked the car in for an MOT today…..” etc etc.
So this is a fine line: small talk and chatting about irrelevant things can be a welcome distraction, but when people need honest, serious conversations about death, or even silence, let them have it, dammit! I’m fortunate that I come from a confident and somewhat blunt family; dawdling, mindless chat that goes beyond the polite and into the realm of ignorance can be infuriating and you might be called out on it. Follow the lead of those closest the dying or deceased.
“I am so sorry to hear about ______________” *Followed by a proper hug*
Confront the issue. If the person is dying, talk to them, not about them. If someone has died, be frank with their family and those closest; use the language they use and talk about the disease or death, if appropriate. Avoiding the biggest issue in the room (someone died) is a very British response, but one I found utterly unhelpful.
“I know you’re treading some very difficult waters, I’m thinking of you and hoping you stay afloat”
A friend said this to me recently, nearly a year after my dad died, and it made me cry. They had been going through some incredibly difficult things but still had the time and heart to acknowledge that I was struggling. That acknowledgment is powerful (and her wording was poetic and calming). She didn’t try and offer any advice, because most of the time there isn’t anything to say that will help, she simply recognised the difficulty in my situation and let me know she was rooting for me. That’s all we can do, really: be on each other’s team (as Lorde put it) and let each other know that we’re waiting in the wings, with arms full of vegetarian lasagne and love, whenever we’re needed.
That’s what the hell you say when someone dies.