We all struggle to find the right words to say to someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one. We mean well, but what we say is not always interpreted well by the griever. Often spoken to ease the pain of grieving the death of someone we love, instead of bringing relief, those words just add to the hurt and anger of the griever and create more pain and frustration than hope.
Our daughters, Jenelle, and Amy, as well as my Mother Jean, were all killed by a distracted semi-truckdriver on July 22, 2003. Hundreds of family members and friends reached out to provide solace to us. Unfortunately, instead of comforting us with their words and actions, some of the things said caused us more frustration and pain. Below are five of the most hurtful and helpful things we heard.
- They are in a better place (We had no doubt that heaven is a better place than earth. However, we also thought that being right next to us was a pretty good place for our daughters to be).
- Time heals all things (Time does nothing but pass. How you use the time is what helps).
- At least they didn’t suffer (How the hell do you know they didn’t suffer? Have you ever been hit by a speeding semi-truck? This one hurt the most.)
- God doesn’t give you more than you can handle (God really tested us by allowing three family members to die suddenly. We were so frustrated and mad at God for not protecting Jenelle and Amy. This might be a better thing to say years after a loss.)
- At least you have other children (Yes, we really did hear this comment. We still have no answer for this bit of stupidity. Did that make it OK to lose two daughters, simply because we had a son as well?)
It took me a long time for me to understand that people didn’t mean to say stupid things. Sometimes they simply open their mouths before they think about what they want to say. What’s that saying—Open Mouth, Insert Foot. The definition of empathy is “the ability to identify oneself mentally with a person or thing and to understand his or her feelings or its meaning”. As you are trying to help someone who is grieving, please keep this definition of empathy in mind.
You don’t necessarily have to say anything around someone who is grieving. This is hard for most folks, but your presence around a griever is sometimes all that is needed. That healing touch or hug is much more important than spoken words. Below are some of the things that helped us the most.
- I am here for you and your family. I am here to listen to you if you need or want to talk. (Many times, someone who is grieving just needs someone to listen to them).
- I am here and I don’t have a clue as to how to help. Together we will figure this out. (This is telling the griever that they are not alone—a real important message to convey).
- I am here as a friend. It is OK if you want to cry or be mad or express anger. (It is so important to give permission to a griever to express emotions).
- I am sorry that I cannot make things better for you and your family.
- My favorite memory of your loved one was (Most people love to hear stories about their loved one. This is a great way to start a conversation with someone who is grieving).
There are no words that will make it right that someone we loved has died. However, there are words that will provide comfort, soothe the pain, and help with the healing process. If you are not sure what to say, simply offer a hug or a touch on the arm and say, “I am so sorry for your loss”.
Randy Stocker is a survivor of the worst kind of loss—the death of a child, two children and his mother in his case who were all killed by a distracted semi-truck driver who was speeding and reading when he broadsided their car. Randy and his family live in Rochester, MN. He is an author, a professional speaker, and a realtor. He is active in the Rochester community via civic organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, BNI (Business Networking international), and his church. Randy is the author of the book, Hugs Help. His goal is to provide practical advice to both grievers and to people who provide comfort to those grievers.
Great Article. I hope it helps people everywhere.