One of life’s most uncomfortable moments is to face a person who has had a severe loss. To not know what to say can actually keep people away from the bereaved, which is the worst way to treat a grieving person. Now that our family has experienced a loss of our own, it’s helpful for me to draw from my own feelings and memories from the first days after the loss of our son to now know how to behave toward a hurting person.
What to Say: It’s not easy to gauge what is inappropriate to say and what isn’t. Everyone is different and has different likes and dislikes. I can only share with you what I did and didn’t like:
“You will see him again.” DID LIKE.
“He’s not suffering any more.” DID NOT LIKE. I can’t really explain why. I guess it sounded too much like people were saying he was better off dead, and I felt he should be with me.
“He’s not dead!” DID LIKE. It was a reference to the fact that he’s in heaven. It was comforting, but probably only to those who strongly believe in God and heaven.
“Mathias is not a ‘was.’ He’s an ‘is.'” DID LIKE. Probably my favorite.
“You were a faithful mother.” DID LIKE. It helped me deal with my guilt that I could have done more to help him survive.
“I’ve been crying and crying and I can’t stop crying since I heard. I drove to work and had to go in and fix my make-up and then cried some more. I just wish I could do something.” DID LIKE. The very best thing that could be said at all.
Also, to say, “We’ll be praying for you,” or “I’m so sorry,” are good ideas, as well as, “Let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” If you knew the deceased, tell a fond memory you have of him to the loved one. It’s a loving gesture and he will be grateful.
Dodging the Subject:
I would just straight up ask the person what they prefer if you’re unsure if they want to talk about their deceased relative or friend, because everyone is different. For me, I enjoy talking about our son Mathias. I don’t want to talk about how he died, but I do enjoy talking about him and what he was like. I feel disappointed when people change the subject when I mention him (I’ve always called them “subject-changers”). Particularly when he first died, I felt like talking about his personality and the things I loved about him kept his memory alive. When people appeared like they didn’t want to talk about him, I felt like I lost him all over again. Not only was he dead, but now he would be forgotten. Let the grieving person be the guide on talking about their loved one. If they talk about the deceased and you change the subject out of your own discomfort (which is really a way of thinking of yourself instead of your friend), it can be very hurtful and rude. If they mention something funny that their father used to do, or how wonderful their daughter was at knitting, laugh right along with them, or ask to see the knitting. Ask if there are any pictures you can see, or buy them a plaque dedicated to their loved one to put in their garden. If you’re afraid you’re going to cry, don’t be. Remember, crying shows you care, and the grieving person will be grateful. If they don’t want to talk about their loved one, or they change the subject, then change it right along with them. But don’t be the subject-changer yourself.
Grief takes a very long time. To suggest a person get counseling is appropriate, but never tell them to “move on” or to “let him go.” This is a nosy and irritating remark, and most grief counselors don’t agree with it anyway. It’s healthy for a person to remember the one they lost, and they must get well at their own pace. An unhealthy griever never goes on to function in society and stays in a dark bedroom. A healthy griever goes on to function (if not right away but eventually) in society, but never feels it’s necessary to “let him go,” and, particularly if he believes that he will see that person again someday, there’s no reason why he ever should.