How To Be Comforting, And Not
These are the words of a New York City cab driver, spoken to my parents when they were on the way to the morgue to face the unimaginable task of identifying their youngest son, my kid brother, who died unexpectedly.
The driver, too, had lost a child, and these words are perhaps the wisest I’ve ever heard for the recently bereaved.
I’ve lost a brother, both parents, and, during the most horrific years of the AIDS epidemic, several close friends. This cab driver’s words were comforting to me, and they are the words I use when expressing sympathy to others.
I think of them now because in response to my recent post, Face Reality, Life Can Be Random, a reader commented that the bland aphorism, “Everything happens for a reason” is particularly unhelpful in a time of bereavement.
Oh heavens, yes. Even if it were true that everything happens for a reason, which it’s not, when you’re in the dark belly of grief, no reason in the world can provide comfort. There’s even something a little callous about this attempt to justify loss, pain, and grief.
This observation got me thinking about good and bad things you can say when someone is grieving.
The absolutely most unhelpful thing you can say is nothing.
No matter how awkward and weird and freaked out you feel when facing someone who is grieving, you gotta say something. Be awkward, be weird, be freaked out. It doesn’t matter. The other person gets it. They’re freaked out too.
Just say, “I’m so sorry.” If you can, share a warm memory of the person. If the other person wants to talk (some do, some don’t), all you have to do is listen and make sympathetic noises. Don’t be afraid of grief. It always spins its way out in its own way.
But aside from that, here are a few things people say that I consider particularly useless.
“S/he’s in a better place now.”
While this might be comforting for some people, you’d better be sure that they share your belief system. Even if they do, you better know something about the person who died, too. People who believe in heaven might also believe in hell, and who knows where they think their loved one will be spending eternity?
The other problem here is that grief is not about the person who has died, but the empty hole left behind. So even if the person who died is now sitting on God’s knee eating bonbons while angels massage his feet, the people left behind are going to be sad. You want to acknowledge their pain, not try to negate it.
(I am, however, OK with “S/he is no longer in pain,” if that is appropriate. Seeing a loved one suffer is dreadful. Release from that pain is, I think, some consolation. Do you agree?)
“Death is a natural part of life.”
Really? I didn’t know that.
And, besides, so what? It stinks anyway.
“S/he wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
For starters, how do you know that? I mean, when you die, don’t you hope your loved ones will be at least a little sad? I’d like to think that my demise would induce at least a few minutes of wailing and garment rending. Just enough to satisfy my late ego.
Additionally, telling a person not to be sad is not effective. We feel what we feel and that’s all we can do. Emotions are like fat—if you squeeze them in one place, they pooch out someplace else. I’m not saying you need to wallow, or talk talk talk about it if you’re not inclined, but you do need to feel what you feel until you don’t feel it anymore.
That’s what I love about the cabbie’s words of comfort. They honor the pain and offer a view of the future that is both hopeful and realistic. Of course we never got over my brother’s death. He left an enormous hole in our lives that will never, ever be filled. But the pain did get better, for the most part. It got bearable. It was a long, dark tunnel, but we came out the other side.
That’s what people need to know when they’re grieving: yeah, it hurts like a mofo – but it won’t hurt like that forever.
In your experience, what are the best and worst words of consolation?
Photograph of grieving man available from Shutterstock.
Dembling, S. (2012). How To Be Comforting, And Not. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 12, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/quotes/2012/09/how-to-be-comforting-and-not/