What do you say to someone who’s grieving?

This may seem like an odd post for my education blog, and I was going to post it on my personal blog, but then I decided that actually it does belong here. This isn’t taught in schools…but it should be!

As many of you know, I lost my mom recently. “I just don’t know what to say,” one of my friends told me, giving me a hug. Well you know what? It’s ok to admit that you don’t have the words – I’m living through it and I don’t really have the words either – but by saying that you don’t know what to say, you are telling me that you know I’m hurting and that you wish you could do something about it. In other words, you are saying that you care.

There are no magic words to make everything ok, but there are some which will bring some comfort, and others which, however well-meaning they were intended to be, will make the person feel worse. So if you want to know what to say, or what not to say, next time you are in this situation – read on.

What to say

  • I’m sorry for your loss
    If you don’t know the person who died, then a simple acknowledgment is fine.
  • I’ll always remember the time when…
    One friend from Malaysia told me she’d always remember my mom making her a blancmange because she’d never tried one. It’s really meant a lot to me when people have shared their own memories of my mom and it’s comforting to know that she will live on in the memories of other people whose lives she has touched.
  • What are you doing on Monday evening? You put the kettle on and I’ll bring the cake.
    I’ve lost my mom, my best friend, and I’m feeling lonely. I’m not feeling up to picking the phone up myself, so you taking the initiative to arrange coming round to keep me company is really appreciated.
  • I’ve brought a casserole round. Where do you keep your plates?
    I know I need to eat, but it’s not something I’ve been able to think about so someone just putting food in front of me has been a huge help.
  • Nothing
    One of my friends called me, and we spent about 15 minutes just crying down the phone to each other before hanging up. It doesn’t matter that we didn’t speak. I know that she cared enough to call, and she cared enough to cry for me. Some people have just given me a hug, or squeezed my shoulder before carrying on their way, and I know. I know that even though they don’t have the words, they are telling me that they care.

What not to say

  • Oh well never mind. You’ll feel better soon.
    Yes, I’ve really had this one. Funnily enough I do mind, and I hope I do feel better soon, because right now I’m feeling worse.
  • You’ll never get over it, you know. You’ll always miss her and you’ll never be able to remember the happy times because it will always be too painful.
    Yes, I’ve really had this one as well. It made me cry. A lot.
  • I know how you feel
    No. You don’t know. You have no idea how I feel. My relationship with my mom was special and unique, and nobody else in the world has ever felt this way before. Maybe you’ve lost your own mom, but your relationship with her was unique and special and nobody else will ever know you felt. My brother and I have lost the same mom, but that doesn’t mean that we miss her in the same way.
  • I lost my mom/dad/gran/hamster last year
    I’m sorry for your loss, but I’m struggling to cope with my own grief at the moment, so if I don’t know you well enough to know already that you have lost someone then I’m going to struggle to scrape together the strength to support you through yours.
  • What did she die of?
    Why are you asking me this? It doesn’t matter why she died. It just matters that she did and I wish she hadn’t.
  • You know where I am. Phone me if you need me
    That’s kind of you, and I know you mean well, but at the moment I’m incapable of thinking about what I need and even if I could I don’t have the energy to pick up the phone.  Much better just to give me a date and time to expect you round.
  • My parents are really old. I’ll probably lose them in the next few years.
    So, let me get this straight. I tell you that I’m upset because my mom has died and you respond by telling me that you still have yours. Well, then stop this conversation now. If you think you will lose them soon, go and spend time with your family and make sure they know you love them. If you have nothing comforting to say to me, then leave me in peace.
  • Nothing
    Bereavement isn’t catching. Just because I’ve lost someone I love doesn’t mean that you will if you stop to speak to me. I’m feeling really lonely and isolated right now, so please don’t break eye-contact and walk away, pretending you haven’t seen me. Take a deep breath, choose something – anything – from the first list and let me know that you care.

7th March 2015 update
A few days ago my husband showed me a link to a post written not long after mine, on a similar theme. If you found this post useful, you may also like to read this Huffington Post article on helping someone who is grieving.

She Said They Said

She said “I need help.”
They said, “We’re busy. Maybe next week.”
She said, “Do you have time to help now?”
They said, “We’re still busy. Some other time.”
She said, “I can’t do this on my own. Please help.”
They said, “We’d love to, but we have too many things to do.”
She said, “I’m begging you.”
They said nothing. They just turned away.
She said nothing either. Too exhausted to ask again.
They said, “We had no idea she needed help so badly. We’re sorry we didn’t listen. We’re sorry for your loss.”

She said nothing. She was gone.

Grandma

I’ve lost my Gran.
She’s still there,
I see her every Sunday.
She still sits in her favourite chair by the fire,
which is always on, even in summer,
because she says she’s cold.

Sometimes when she sees me, she smiles,
asks how I am and how my friends are.
We natter about the neighbours,
gossip and giggle.
We play her old wartime music,
sing along together
even though I don’t know the words.
We laugh.

But sometimes when she sees me she’s confused,
doesn’t recognise me,
calls me the wrong name.
That makes me sad.

Sometimes she’s scared of me, and that’s worse.
Thinks I’m a doctor come to put her in a home,
or a thief after her jewellery and nick-nacks.

Sometimes she shouts and swears,
has tantrums and throws things,
kicks and scratches, bites.
Then I don’t recognise her,
and that breaks my heart.

I’ve lost my Gran.
She’s still there, frail body in her favourite chair.
But in her mind she’s gone away.

Leaving Home

I’m in my room doing homework.
and I hear
raised voices in the kitchen,
glass shattering,
the radio being turned up,
footsteps on stairs,
wardrobe doors opening,
clothes hangers scraping on rails,
zipper on suitcase,
thud of case hitting wooden floor,
front door clicking shut,
wheels churning up gravel,
engine fading…

Silence…

Mum sobbing.
I can’t concentrate now.
My homework blurs, then smudges.
He didn’t even say, “Goodbye.”

Dad

My dad didn’t come home from work today.
Two men in dark suits knocked our door,
and mum cried.

The newspapers said he was a hero.
They said he was brave, saved lives.
They said he should have a medal.

My teachers said he was a great man,
and that I should be proud of him.

I am proud.
But not for the reasons you think.
I don’t know your brave-heroic-medal-earner.

I’m proud because he was my dad.
Because he read me stories when I was little.
Because he put plasters on my scratches.
Because he tickled me till I screamed for mercy.
Because he never missed my school plays.
Because he let me wear make-up.
Because he never approved of my boyfriends.
Because he helped me with my homework.
Because he believed in me.
Because I always knew he loved me.

You can keep your brave hero.
I’ll keep my memories of the real man.