People often ask me what they can say to comfort someone who is grieving the loss of a spouse, and I have to admit that there is nothing they can say to bring comfort. There are no words, no reminder that the deceased is no longer suffering, no platitudes or original thoughts that can make one whit of difference when a person’s world has just imploded.
Even worse than trying to find the right words is to ask questions. Brain fog — the grief-induced amnesia, dazedness, and inability to think that shroud us after the death of a life mate — seems unreal, but it is a very real condition. This fogginess is common when a person is undergoing severe trauma, and make no mistake, such a profound loss, such an abrupt change in one’s circumstances is traumatic. So questions simply do not compute. “How are you today?” “Is there anything I can help you with?” “What are you going to do?”
Anything, anything at all that demands a response causes the brain to shut down. It is already overloaded with trying to deal with the loss, the unfathomableness of death, the disappearance of habits one shared with the deceased. It’s like having to learn to walk and talk and breathe all over again. What once came naturally, no longer does. Even a question as simple as “how are you” is a problem for the bereaved. And anyway, why are you asking that question? You already know how the person is. They are in pain, feeling lost and bewildered, and have no words to describe what they are feeling.
This leaves the person who wants to do something to show they care at loss, because you do have to say something. Just staring at the bereaved person (as so many do) makes them feel as if they are an exhibit in a freak show.
So, keep your words simple. Say “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.
If you are close, a hug is a good. If you knew the deceased, speak of them, relate a special memory. If you want to do something for the griever, don’t ask, tell. Offer to get groceries. Heed what they say, and if they mention something that overwhelms them (in my case it was cleaning the house) then say you will do it.
Mostly, listen. Listen to what they say and what they refrain from saying. Be there. Validate their pain.
In the end, what most people who have suffered a traumatic loss want from other people is validation. Respect for their grief. An acknowledgement that what they are going through is extraordinarily traumatic and painful.
Too often onlookers try to minimize the pain of grievers, which allows the onlooker to deny the validity not just of the loss but of death itself. “You weren’t married, so you can’t possibly feel bad over the loss of your mate.” “You divorced your first husband in order to remarry, so you got what you deserve.” “She was drinking and driving, so she doesn’t deserve to be mourned.” Or, as one particularly obtuse acquaintance said to me, “How did Jeff allow himself to get so sick?” As if it was his fault that he died, and so was not worthy of being mourned.
Even less boorish people inadvertently try to minimize the pain of grievers. “At least he’s in a better place.” “At least you still have your children.” “At least you have your health.” Of all the minimizing, non-validating phrases you can say, “at least” is the absolute worst, so please, never, ever say “at least” in any reference to their loss. They are living the absolute worst that can happen. There is no more “at least.”
Sometimes people compare their loss to the griever’s. As someone said to me, “I know how you are feeling. My dog just died.” I am not going to get into a discussion here about how some people think grief is grief no matter the loss. Just believe me when I say that by comparing the loss of your pet to the loss of a spouse and all the collateral losses that come with such a death, like the loss of income, the loss of a best friend, the loss of a home, the loss of one’s very identity, will not endear you to the griever.
The only time mentioning your own loss is if it is in the same magnitude. After Jeff died, I found comfort in people telling me that they still have grief upsurges even years after the death of their husband. And though I could not understand their pain, I was grateful for the people who told me about the loss of a child. These stories helped me realize that some people did understand, and that I would survive.
The upshot here is, don’t worry so much about what you can say to comfort your grieving relative or friend. Be aware of what they are feeling, not what you are feeling. Let them know that you know what a catastrophe the loss is for them. Respect their pain and sorrow. As difficult as facing their pain might be for you, realize that it is a thousand times worse for them. You go home to your own life, to your spouse (perhaps). And they go home only to more pain.
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.