• Death and grief make us uncomfortable.
• It's hard to know what to say to a griever, and it can be even harder to know what not to say.
• Being present and bearing witness to your friend's pain is just as important as having the right words.
When I was in high school, the three-year-old sister of a friend of mine died. My friend took a few days off school, which gave me time to obsess about what I’d say to her when she returned. She was my first friend to experience death up close, and I didn’t want to get it wrong.
When the day arrived, another friend and I waited outside the school to greet her. My other friend got to her first, gave her a big hug, and said, “This just totally sucks.” I’d practiced a dozen scripts in my head, but “this just totally sucks” wasn’t part of any of them. I was a bit embarrassed by my friend’s crassness, yet what she said rang truer than any of the platitudes I’d rehearsed.
Fast forward several decades. Having survived the deaths of my parents, my sisters, and my teenage daughter, I can truly say I’ve heard it all. And while I know we try our best, I also know that death and grief make us uncomfortable, and our “best” can be clumsy or even hurtful.
I’m sure I’ve gotten it wrong myself dozens of times. After all, each situation brings its own sensitivities and minefields. But now I know what not to say to someone who’s grieving.
1. Anything that starts with “at least.”
Starting a statement with “at least” is akin to saying, “look on the bright side,” and any bright side a griever might feel is theirs alone to identify. “At least she wasn’t in pain.” “At least she lived a long life.” “At least she didn’t have kids.” “At least she had a baby to carry on her legacy.” Nope. None of these is OK. It’s not your place to try to cheer up the griever or to point out that it could be worse.
2. "Did she smoke?"
When I tell people my sister died of lung cancer, nine times out of 10, they ask me whether she smoked. I imagine they’re looking for reassurance that if they don’t smoke, they can cross lung cancer off their list of horrible things that might happen to them. They want to know there’s some order to the chaos. It’s the same as asking whether someone who died in a car crash was wearing a seatbelt. Neither is OK because these questions blame the victim and are irrelevant to the griever, whose person is gone whether or not she smoked, even if he was wearing his seatbelt.
3. "I can’t imagine."
Yes, you can. You just don’t want to. The problem with this one, even though it seems respectful, is there’s no adequate response. Saying “I can’t imagine” erects a wall between you and the person you’re trying to comfort, shutting down the possibility of any meaningful conversation. You can only empathize with the griever when you allow yourself to imagine, which in turn creates a safe space for the mourner to share how she feels.
4. "You’re so strong."
Telling someone they’re strong when they feel broken might make the person feel like there’s something wrong with them for falling apart, or even for feeling sad. While you’re trying to pay a compliment, you’re actually telling the person how they are doing instead of waiting for them to tell you.
5. "Let me know if there's anything I can do."
Your grieving friend has enough on her plate without trying to figure out what you can do for her. If you want to do something useful, bring a meal or give her a restaurant gift card. Take her children out for ice cream. Mow her lawn. Sit with her in her grief. But don’t ask her to come up with something you can do.
In the end, the best thing to say when you don’t know what to say is just that. “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.” What my high-school friend got right was acknowledging how hard death and grief are, even for those trying to provide comfort.
You don't need to fill the silence. Being present for your friend by recognizing and bearing witness to her pain is at least as important as the words you have to offer.