There will sometimes be thoughtless remarks made by people who don’t understand what grief feels like. During my bereavement, many remarks that felt hurtful were said to me with the intent of trying to make me feel better. I understood that.
One of the most useful ideas I learned from hypnotherapy was adding some filters into my life. My favorite ones were called “helpful” and “not helpful.” Incorporating things that are “helpful” improve my life. When something is “unhelpful” for me, I simply discard it without pain. When I started to separate the helpful from unhelpful in my life, I automatically felt much better.
After I shared my story about Jason on my blog, I received an unhelpful email message from a friend. She was not intending to upset me. But her message was a reminder of how sometimes statements to someone grieving are unintentionally hurtful.
Her message was this: “I am so, so sorry about your loss and other sad situations in your life. I do hope you will get well and take care of yourself.” Her first sentence was perfectly helpful. Her second sentence was not at all helpful. I felt that it implied that I was sick. Grief is not a sickness; it is most certainly an unfair circumstance. I also felt she implied I might get better if I started taking better care of myself. That felt very judgmental on her part.
How much better her remark might have been if she had said, “I think it’s great that you’re writing and feeling better!” Because my friend was not trying to hurt me, I would never share with her directly how unhelpful her comment was. However, this is a perfect opportunity for me to share my insight with others. I would love to encourage more understanding about more sensitive ways of comforting someone who is grieving.
First off, the greatest comfort comes with the acknowledgment of caring and being there. Demonstrating love and compassion circumvents the common feeling during grief that there can be no understanding if someone hasn’t experienced it. Sharing memories and mentioning the name of their loved one is very important.
I remember that before I experienced grief, I was clueless about how to approach people who were grieving. It is awful when someone you love is suffering with grief. There is extreme helplessness and a wish to make the pain go away. Unfortunately, that leads to many remarks that are well intentioned but have the reverse effect. Comments like, “It’s time for you to move on with your life or get over it,” reflect other peoples’ discomfort around grief. It’s hard for anyone to imagine that grief simply won’t go away, and that statement reflects the wish that life could resume as it once was for the person suffering. But for someone who is tormented by grief, it is impossible to get over it, and those statements only intensify their pain. Sometimes, the frustration from feeling the lack of understanding further isolates the person grieving. The depth of pain can tear relationships apart.
I have lived all of the stages of grief. For me the pain was what it was, it couldn’t have been any worse or any easier. Initially, the shock was simply a cushion for the impending anguish. In my depressed stage, I was in bed and under the covers. There wasn’t any person who could comfort me, certainly not my husband. When I was angry, I didn’t want anyone there to comfort me. I told everyone to leave me alone because I was simply in too much pain. Many bereaved people have driven others away during the angry phase of their bereavement. Grievers are wounded and not much can be expected of them.
During my angry stage of grief, I avoided being with people because I couldn’t stand the thoughtless remarks. It wasn’t easy at all to stuff my feelings during the angry phase of my bereavement. It’s possible that during that stage I verbally responded with the answers I’m about to share. And perhaps a lot of people avoided me even more after that. Later on, I accepted that the intentions behind them were loving, and I could accept good intentions knowing that grief situations are awkward for many people.
In a moment, I want to share what I actually felt inside with the following list of common statements that unintentionally caused me pain. I have actually said some of these same statements to other people, so please do not cringe if you’ve made these remarks to someone in the past. Please understand that I am sharing how I felt when I was in my deepest pain. Once I healed, my feelings surrounding these statements became much more tolerant.
Here is my list of what is not helpful to say to someone grieving:
“He’s in a better place.”
The only place he belongs is with me. There is no better place. How dare you insinuate there could be a better place than in my arms right now!
“He’s with God now.”
God doesn’t need him this young! Why would any God give me this amazing gift and then take it back? What kind of God is that? Is there even a God out there? Why is he better off with God than with me? Couldn’t God just wait a little longer?
“There are some things in life that we just can’t understand.”
Well, you’re darn right about that one! I’d ask you to please explain that for me, but you’ve never gone through this; so how could you possibly know?
“At least he’s not suffering anymore.”
Oh, I’m just so, so selfish! I don’t care! I want him back on this earth right now, even if he’s suffering. That way, I could take care of him again! I want to smell him, hold him, caress him and love him. I know I can alleviate his suffering; I am certain of it!
Oh my, now I am defective because I am thinking more about my own loss than his pain. What is the matter with me?
Why did he ever have to suffer at all? The unfairness of the suffering is what hurts. Emphasizing the finality of death with his suffering being over is not comforting. I don’t need death to be explained, when there truly is no good explanation. I’d rather hear, “It’s too bad he ever had to suffer” or “I’m so sorry for all the suffering you both went through.”
“You have other children and you can always have more children.”
Why does that not help me to feel one iota better? Shall I cut off one of your fingers? Will that hurt? That is how this feels. You might have other fingers to compensate, but it still hurts and it’s still missing! My child was totally unique, and there is no other human being on this planet that could replace him. Don’t imagine for one minute that I haven’t been looking. Everywhere I go for the rest of my life, I am searching out five-year-old freckled boys to see if there could be one with a resemblance to him. Not everyone can have more children! To say this is a huge assumption and that causes even more pain for anyone who has lost a child, wants another child and cannot have other children for whatever reason.
“There will be something good that will come out of his death.”
I don’t care about anything now but alleviating my own pain. Nothing can possibly come out of my son’s death except this god-awful pain that has wrecked my life and those around me. Anyway, if anything did come out of it, I would trade it in an instant if I could.
“Don’t worry, time will heal.”
Time is excruciating when I am in so much pain. It does not feel possible that healing could ever take place at this moment. Do I really care that time has helped others? I don’t care about anyone else right now. All I can see is that I am in unbelievable pain. I don’t believe those words will ever be true for me. That is not helpful at all!
And lastly: “Why don’t you take medication? You would definitely feel so much better.”
How can you say that to me? I just finished telling you that I’ve hated how I’ve felt on medication. I cannot focus well enough to work and hate being in a “haze” on top of my pain. I want to talk about my pain and to grieve. I don’t want drugs! Time spent grieving is time moving forward. I want to feel my grief instead of avoiding it.
Now if I’ve left everyone baffled as to what they could say that’s helpful for someone grieving, here is another list:
“Please know that I am here for you. Feel free to talk about anything at all. I would love for you to share anything you remember about what you have lost. I want to know more about him.”
“I miss him/her so much! I want to share some memories I have about him or her”. Say their name. Sharing memories allows for their loved one to live on in a profound way.
“I wish I knew what to say that would make you feel better.”
“I am at a total loss of words. I don’t know what to say right now. Nothing is adequate. “Just know how much I care!”
“Please let me know if there is anything at all I can do.”
“I am so sorry for your loss!”
Most holidays pose a particular challenge to anyone who is grieving. There are Anniversaries of the Heart, which are the birthdays and death days. And then there are holidays. I have collected many other people’s grief stories. For my friend, Lori, both of her “Anniversaries of the Heart” are within weeks of each other. Her young son was born in November. He was three when he dropped dead from an unknown, heart defect in her living room. He was chasing his older brother around a coffee table. His death was a few days before Thanksgiving. For the rest of Lori’s life, she will never have anything remotely resembling a traditional Thanksgiving celebration again.
I know a couple whose daughter died during the first week of January. Every New Year’s celebration brings the reminder that the New Year to celebrate does not include their beloved daughter.
Recently, I found out that someone I hadn’t seen for a while lost her adult son in December. Christmas will forever be marked for her. Now it is reaching the six-month mark and that is an extremely difficult time during bereavement. I sent her a message today. I told her I would be thinking of her on this first Mother’s Day without her son. There is a great deal of suffering surrounding holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
During holidays, the loneliness and anguish of grief is intensified with the memories of past holidays filled with joy, rather than excruciating sadness. On holidays, if you know someone who is suffering because they lost someone whom they loved, swallow the fear and call them. If they are angry, listen. If they are silent, stay close. If they are sad, allow it. Don’t feel your purpose is to remind them life goes on. They know that. Unfortunately, it is going on around them!
Your presence can mean so much. And if you are rejected, don’t take it personally. Don’t give up either. Nothing is lost by reaching out to someone you care about who is grieving. Let them know that you are thinking of them and are sad about their loss. The acknowledgement of grief is usually appreciated when it is done in a caring manner. Pretending it isn’t there certainly doesn’t make it go away.
When I was grieving, I was fortunate that I had friends who stayed close to me despite their own discomfort. I knew my family and many loving friends desperately wished my pain could be alleviated. I was remote and inconsolable for a very, very long time. It really did help to know that I had friends and family hoping I’d feel better. Having hope was a reason for me to go on living. And it is precisely what has inspired me to share my story.
© Judy Unger and http://www.myjourneysinsight.com 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Judy Unger with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Regarding the “At least he’s not suffering anymore.” comment
Not for Jason, but for other parents who have lost their children to something like a terminal illness (just to use one scenario) I would not think this to be an inappropriate comment, particularly if the child’s last months (or longer) were very painful (such as chemotherapy, etc.) with no hope for recovery. It wouldn’t be the only thing I would say – I would preface it with some of the comments you recommend.
Just a thought.
You know what? I think that the unfairness of the suffering is what hurts the most. Bringing attention to the finality of death through the “suffering being over” is not comforting. Death does not need to be explained, when there truly is no good explanation. The real question is, “Why did my loved one ever have to suffer at all?” Here’s an alternative below to, “At least he’s not suffering, anymore.”
How about instead, “It’s too bad your loved one ever had to suffer so much!” or even, “I’m so sorry for all the suffering you both had to go through!”
“The only people I wanted to be with were those who were grieving too.”
While I know that someone who has not experienced a significant loss can sympathize with someone who has, do you think they can truly empathize? Did you ever find someone who understood what you were going through if they didn’t experience it for themselves?