Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What do you say when you don't know what to say?

A family I know and have been close to for years recently lost their grandfather. And there is a bit of tension in the family because a far-away grandchild (not someone I know personally, but a grandchild in another unit of the family) did not call or reach out to the family in any way after the death. Her reason: she didn't know what to say.

Now, you don't have to read much of my blog to guess what I think of that.

But I do have compassion for her position. I've been near to people in grief and not had a clue what to say to them. My operating theory has generally been to just call or stop by and stumble my way through the conversation. I guess, I figure saying something awkward is better than not saying anything at all.

I realize this is far from ideal, however. Does anyone else have better advice for what to say when someone is feeling loss and you have no idea how to express your sympathy?


risaden said...

I think stumbling through is about as good as it gets. A quiet presence is often all that's really needed. Ask how they are doing. Try to be available for crying, laughing, whatever emotions they seem to be having in the moment.

It's always best to avoid "I know how you feel" since that can offend. Avoid chit-chat or getting drawn into conversations that smack of "normal reality" as a death places the bereaved in a very extra-ordinary place. And I don't like the usual "I'm sorry for your loss" because the word sorry is not quite what we're trying to convey. I generally start by saying, "I was so sad to hear about your granddad's death." (I think it's important to acknowlege the death in some way, but there is also,"I feel saddened by your loss".) If they seem to want to talk, I ask gentle questions so that, if they wish, they can tell me about the illness leading to death, the death itself, or their relationship, or just stories about the deceased. In grief, people often need to tell the story of the death and events leading up to it over and over as part of their process.

A personal thoughtful note (not just a signed sympathy card)is also appreciated, including memories of the person who died, or an appreciation of how important the relationship was. ("I know how much he meant to you." Or "She was so lucky to have you close these past months.")

You never regret taking the task of comforting the bereaved seriously and, as you say, stumbling through it.

Gail Rae said...

I've stumbled about quite a bit with this throughout my life. Some years ago I settled on the strategy that risaden first clarifies in the above comment: After acknowledging the loss (if the subject hasn't been broached by the loss survivor I usually say, "I heard about so-and-so's death") and expressing my own sadness, if appropriate, I say, "How are you?" It's important to use only these three words. That way, the loss survivor can interpret the question however s/he pleases and refer to the effect of the loss, or not, as s/he wishes.
Personally, my favorite acknowledgments, formal and informal, after my mother's recent death have been those that contain someone else's memories of my mother and/or a personal statement of how the person contacting me feels about and/or perceives my mother.
I don't mind acknowledgments of Mom's and my relationship, either. In the main, it is nice to know that people perceived our relationship to be important to both of us. I find myself wanting to gag, though, when someone attempts to label the quality of what I did for my mother. A good example of this is that someone wrote and told me they thought I was an "angel" to my mother. Maybe they thought this, but, for some reason, perhaps because the person was not really aware of Mom's and my relationship, it offended me.
I think, though, at least my recent experience tells me, that the direct loss survivors are often stumbling just as much as everyone else. Thus, I think, good acknowledgments are those that recognize the communality of the loss. A good example of this: Well over a year ago I met a woman who was a checkout clerk at a grocery I frequent and shared her full name with my mother. Our brief meetings always contained comparisons of this woman's personality and life with my mother's. Turned out, they were much alike in attitude and character, which was fun for both of us. A good month or so after my mother died I ran into her at the grocery. As usual, she asked about my mother. When I told her she had died, although the woman had never met my mother her face fell, then she beamed and said, "I'm so glad I knew about her! I hope the last thing she ate was something she loved." An unusually appropriate comment from a grocery check out clerk, especially since one of our perennial topics of casual conversation was items I purchased that were my mother's favorites.
Because of my mother's importance to me, there were many, many people who never met her but who were touched by her life. It is their acknowledgments, especially, that place my mother firmly in the context of her wide sphere of earthly influence. Being reminded of this often lifts me on bad grieving days.

Nick King said...

Risaden and Gail Rae's thoughts are right on target. And I would add that any stumbling conversation is better than none or ignoring the topic. The best advice here is to follow the cues being given by the person grieving.
It is much the same when talking with someone who has a terminal illness. There were times when my late wife could easily talk about her illness (ALS/Lou Gehrig's Disease) and did so very openly. There were other times when she didn't want to be defined by the disease.
Most often she used humor to address issues she was having or put another person at ease--(see some of the postings in the Humor section of to see what I mean).
And, it depends on the mood of the person at that point in time.

Jessica Knapp said...

Wow! Thank you all so much for the thoughtful responses. I like the idea of a personal note, risaden. And I think you're absolutely right about not trying to say "I know how you feel."

Gail, I like the thought of asking "How are you?" It's considerate but not invasive at all.

Nick, my mother spent her entire career in a hospital. She has always said the loneliest people were the ones with terminal illnesses because their friends and family were so unsure of how to talk to them and what to say, a lot of times they would just disappear.

It's so helpful to have a few specific strategies!

JR said...

If you have let the opportunity pass without any contact because you didn't know what to say, you cannot change that fact. What you can change is right now. So get on the phone, no matter how much time has passed and say, "I am sorry I did not come to you when your xxxxer died. I was afraid and didn't know what to say. Please forgive me."

Now at this point you can see where it goes and fumble your way through if you have to. The receiver of you belated call will be forever thankful.