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