I belong to an online site where people ask questions of self-professed experts. I’m often asked questions about grief, most of which I have already answered, but every once in a while, I’m asked a new question that flabbergasts me.
Today someone mentioned a friend who had lost their mother, and asked, “What can I tell them to ‘cheer them up’ and express how proud I am for them and the way they’re handling it?”
What the heck kind of question is that? And how smug and ignorant and insensitive does someone have to be to ask it?
The truth is, grief belongs to the griever. It has nothing to do with anyone else, no matter how close that anyone might be to the griever. What an onlooker sees might not show the bereaved person’s real feelings, and anything anyone says in that regard might make the bereaved feel even more alone than they already do because it will show that the “friend” doesn’t understand.
People need their grief, need to feel what they are feeling way more than they need to be “cheered up.” Cripes, if the questioner can’t stand to see the friend’s grief, think how much worse the griever feels at the loss. Wanting to cheer up a griever might be understandable, because grief is one of those things the uninitiated shy away from, but it’s a totally selfish desire. No one wants to have to confront the fact of death — it’s the great unknowable and puts the lie to our cozy existence.
And what the heck did the questioner mean by being proud of the way the friend handle “their” grief? Because they’re not crying in public? Because they’re continuing on with their life? Does that mean that if they were crying or showing their grief in some other way, the questioner would be upset with the bereaved person? Again, how a person handles grief has nothing to do with anyone but the griever. Each griever handles things the best they know how, though most grievers quickly learn to hide their grief so that others aren’t judging them, and letting someone know you are proud of them for how they are handling their grief is definitely a judgement.
Instead of cheering up a griever or voicing a judgement, you can hug the person if you are close friends. You can invite the person to lunch or provide a meal at their house. If you knew the mother, you can tell stories about the mother and say how much you liked her or miss her or whatever. If you didn’t know her, ask about her. People who are grieving sometimes need to talk about the deceased, but most people don’t want to mention the deceased for fear of making the bereaved person sad. They don’t understand that nothing will make the griever sadder. Sadness comes with the loss. There’s nothing you can do to “cheer up” a griever, but you can suspend all judgement. And you can be there for them.
That’s what counts. Simply being there.
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
July 20, 2020 at 12:45 pm
Again very well said. I continue my grief walking every day. After 32 years together thousands and thousands wonderful little sharing were always staying with me. Try to walk step by step and continue to survive day by day.
I feel with your questions and answers you have already very well explained.
I hope that you have completely recovered with your knees.
Please take care
July 20, 2020 at 4:25 pm
My knees are doing better. Thanks you! I’m glad to hear that you are still walking. I do think that’s the best way to survive after such a loss. Take care of yourself.
July 20, 2020 at 12:50 pm
So true!!! Loneliness only adds to the sadness! How well you & I know.
July 21, 2020 at 3:52 pm
My mother was the first of those really close to me to die. Note – she died, I did not lose her. I lose lots of things; keys, papers, recently my phone, and maybe my mind sometimes, but I did not lose my mum. She died. I was there. I know exactly what happened to her. Even though it was expected (cancer), it affected me in ways, for longer, and to an extent I hadn’t expected.
You’re quite right that it’s a highly personal thing. I’m not sure I fully understand it myself even now, and having since “lost” my father and most recently my wife.
July 21, 2020 at 7:23 pm
I also objected to the use of the word “loss” when Jeff died. I especially object to the rote “I’m sorry for your loss” because it’s such a clinical response to the horror of the death of a loved one. For the past few years, though, I’ve felt that Jeff is being lost to me. Our shared life is forever receding, he’s not in the forefront of my mind the way he was for many years, and I am forgetting him. This loss is separate from his death, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I suppose it’s just as well. I have to focus on me now, and do what I can to prepare for growing old alone.
I don’t know if I ever said, but I am sorry about your wife and your parents. It’s hard when death claims so many people one is close to.