What to say when you don't know what to say
Why is it that that we find it so difficult to know what to say to someone who has recently been bereaved? Our society has avoided talking about death for so long that knowing the right thing to say no longer comes naturally.
The more tragic the bereavement the more difficult it is to find the right words, and the more the temptation to ‘cross the road’ either figuratively or literally, forcing isolation at a time when those bereaved have the greatest need for connection. This is not only very insensitive it is inexcusable!
So what do we say and do - when we don’t know what to say or do?
Any sentence that starts with ‘at least’ is not going to end well! You are trying to force the bereaved person to look at the positive when frankly there isn’t one, and nothing you can say is going to make anyone feel better. You cannot fix this. It will be much more valuable to validate the bereaved feelings, and listen empathically, than to ask them to look at a non existent positive.
Never assume that the bereaved has a belief in a higher power by invoking a ‘reason,’ a ‘better place,’ or ‘God's plan’. You risk adding offence to insensitivity.
Cliches, however well meant, rarely bring comfort. Acknowledging the loss of someone if you you barely knew them, without sounding trite is not easy. ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ is the stock phrase in detective shows. It is painfully impersonal but forgivable only under those generic circumstances.
‘I’m so sorry to hear of the loss of your …’ is more personal
As the advertisement says ‘Don't Compare!’ Comparisons never work. The depth of one person’s emotional pain will never help to alleviate the pain of
another person’s loss. ‘I know how you feel’ also comes under this heading. You can’t know how anyone else feels and it’s not helpful to look at ways to minimalise that person’s loss.
As Viktor Frankel the Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist said ‘suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.’
Social media of course now plays a large part in passing on condolences and messages of support, but whenever possible this should be in addition to a card.
Emails should be the last resort, and only when this is your sole means of communication, and you have no way of discovering their physical address.
Texts have a limited place in communicating condolence and are acceptable when they are as well as, not instead of, a more meaningful contact. They also allow the person bereaved to know that you are thinking about them
Cards are of course the preferred method of communication. A sentence stating how sad you are and a personal comment about the deceased always raises the card to a more meaningful and comforting level. ’He/she was such lovely person and what a wicked sense of humour, I’ll always remember when ..…’ That’s personal and that works.
Phone calls can be very welcome, but immediately after the death they can also be intrusive. You alone can judge this knowing your relationship with the bereaved. In the early days after the death it may be a good idea to text and ask when would be a convenient time to call. After a period of time has passed (again for you to decide) phone calls may be very welcome with offers of a meeting.
Showing genuine compassion with a hug or an empathic listening ear is more powerful than any words - but if you don't know what to say you can say:
I don’t know what to say.
I wish I knew what to say
I wish I knew the right words
I have no words
I know how much you loved him/her
I know how much he/she loved you
I was so very sad to hear of his/her death
‘Let me know if I can help’ are empty words if not backed up by practical actions. Don’t offer, just do it. Bring cooked food to the home of the bereaved. Do something practical to help. Practical support can be deeply appreciated especially in the early days after the death.
Most importantly, talk about the person who died. Don't tiptoe around avoiding any mention of their name. Tell stories about their humour or wit or events that you shared. Whether they are alive or not - they are still a part of that family or group of friends.
Listening when the person needs to talk, checking in, reaching out during the holidays, remembering anniversaries and days that have importance to the bereaved.
Stay in touch. Remember long after the drama of the death and the funeral when everyone has moved on with their lives - that is when they will really need you. They will need that connection. They will need to know that you are still there and thinking about them, they will need your kind words and presence.
Sometimes when you don't know what to, say ‘I'm here’.
That’s all you have to say.