People often ask me what’s the best thing to say to comfort someone who is grieving. My response is that nothing we can say can comfort someone who has lost their spouse or income or health or whatever it is they are grieving. We still need to say something, though (unless we are in the griever’s presence, then a hug is often better than any word). We can’t just ignore a friend’s pain.
Oddly, despite all my various losses, and despite all my writing about grief, I still feel helpless and tongue-tied in the presence of other people’s sorrow.
Several friends are going through devastating times right now, either death of their spouse, an imminent breakup, loss of income, severe health issues.
All I can think to say to these grievers is a simple, “I’m sorry.”
Although most people think “I’m sorry” connotes an apology, the first definition of “sorry” is: “feeling distress, especially through sympathy with someone else’s misfortune.” Which is exactly what we want to say to someone who is hurting.
The only problem with “I’m sorry” is when you add “for your loss.”
Not only is “I’m sorry for your loss,” too rote, too insensitive, too bureaucratic, it also seems a bit too distancing. The first two words express distress and sympathy, a reaching out; the last two words seem to repudiate the outreach, making it clear the distress is the griever’s alone. Although the agony and angst of grief does belong to the griever, each person’s death diminishes us all. And that loss of light in the world should be acknowledged.
Even more than that, it’s not just the loss we are sorry for. We’re also sorry for everything else that comes along with that major loss: the chaotic emotions, the feeling of amputation, the lifestyle change, the lessening of income, the brain fog, the hardships of growing old alone, the loss of the person we were with our deceased loved one, the increased death rate, the horrendous stress.
Most people don’t have an inkling of the scope of grief that the death of a loved one or a devastating divorce or a financial trauma can bring, so they distance themselves. I can’t blame people for not wanting to know the truth.
But I do have an inkling.
And I’m sorry for all that you are going through, so very sorry.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.
November 9, 2019 at 2:31 am
One of Pat’s more sensitive posts.
November 9, 2019 at 6:28 am
I’m sorry is a good thing to say if you ae really feeling that for the other person. Being at a loss for words, it will at least show some type of emotion & sympathy. That is a beautiful picture.
November 9, 2019 at 4:02 pm
“I am sorry.” That is good, because you really are feeling sorry for them.
Hugs help if you are close to that person. There is a warmth there.
November 10, 2019 at 1:48 pm
[…] Then I noticed he had tears in his eyes. “Who did you lose?” I asked quietly. “Your wife?” He couldn’t respond right away. Finally he said, “Not wife. Children.” I hugged him, and said I was so very sorry. He nodded at that, and said, “You do know the right thing to say.” (So yes, I was right with my post a couple of days ago about saying “I’m Sorry.”) […]
November 12, 2019 at 4:43 pm
Not only is “I’m sorry for your loss,” too rote, too insensitive, too bureaucratic, it also seems a bit too distancing.
There’s the word; you nailed it: “bureaucratic.” I hate this phrase with a passion and I have sworn never to inflict it on anyone else. Very recently my favorite uncle passed away after a brief stint in hospice following the attack of a very aggressive form of cancer, and I attended the memorial. What a tremendous loss. he was only 70, the best of men you’d ever want to meet.
November 12, 2019 at 7:12 pm
I am so sorry about your uncle. 70 seems young nowadays, but cancer is no respecter of persons, age, or goodness.