I’m surely no expert on saying the right thing in every situation. I have often opened my mouth in meetings or at business gatherings and wished at different times that I had just smiled and played the shy card. This is not because I am awkward, or silly or clueless, but there are times when all of us find ourselves lacking in the right things to say. In business, this is generally overlooked since most people in these situations are focused on the impressions THEY are making, so these bumbles tend to fall into the “no harm, no foul” category.
When you are dealing with someone who has lost a loved one, however; saying the right thing, or more appropriately – avoiding the WRONG thing, is much more important. Here’s some simple guidance forged from experience and shared in love and in the hope that it will help you communicate your sincere and heart-felt feelings when comforting someone who has experienced a tragic loss.
I offer this NOT in condemnation for anything that anyone has said, or shared, but in the general observation that as a culture, we really don’t know how to deal with death, and especially the death of a child. We are lucky in this country and in certain neighborhoods that this is a rare occurrence and an uncommon topic for discussion and I recognize the dual blessing/curse in that we know so little about how to navigate these painful circumstances. We are grateful as a family for everyone who reached out, regardless of the words you spoke, or sentiments you shared. Please accept this humble offering as a guide for anyone who needs to navigate these challenging waters with a family member, friend or acquaintance.
What to Avoid
It is best to avoid saying things like “they’re in a better place now”. This may be your perspective, but unless it is a close family member with whom you attend church or synagogue and have a solid understanding of your shared beliefs, this may or may not be a welcome statement. In fact, when you are speaking to the mother, or father (or grandmother) of a deceased child, this is not comforting at all. I cannot think of a “better place” for a child than in her mother’s arms, or at the breakfast table eating toast and jam with her brother and sister, or playing in the living room with the family cat. This is not a comforting statement to someone who has lost a child of any age. It may also not be very comforting to someone who has unexpectedly lost an adult loved one – a sibling, parent or spouse. Certainly when someone has long suffered with a painful and challenging disease or long into old age it FEELS that they are in a better place but when our loved ones are taken from us suddenly and seemingly without reason, this is not a comforting statement to hear.
In general, it’s a good idea to avoid comforting someone with your religious or spiritual beliefs – unless you are certain that the grieving person shares the same beliefs. “She’s with Jesus now” may be the ultimate comfort to you or your family, but if that’s not a strongly-held belief, telling a grieving parent or grandparent that their recently departed child is with, what in essence is a stranger, is not exactly comforting. Christians enjoy a “personal relationship with Jesus”, which I respect, and do not want to besmirch; but Christians should understand that not everyone has this relationship, and should consider this when imparting advice or wisdom to a grieving family.
“It was meant to be”. This is just plain wrong. I cannot, and will not believe that it is “meant to be” for a child to die unexpectedly in her bed, or for children to be gunned down in their classrooms, or for toddlers to die in house fires, or of debilitating diseases, or at the hands of street /gun violence, or of hunger, or at the hands of an abusive caregiver,… These are senseless tragedies, and should never be construed as “meant to be”. While we can all learn from these tragic circumstances, please avoid conveying the message to grieving families that the wrenching and life-altering pain in their soul is “meant to be”, because it’s not.
Unless you have buried a young child, or lost a close family member to gun violence, or shared a similar tragedy, please avoid saying, “I know how you feel” because frankly, unless you’ve walked in these shoes, you don’t. In fact, while I’m the grandmother of a child who passed away unexpectedly, I cannot even truly grasp the pain my daughter feels, as both of the babies I carried in my womb and brought into this world are still here to touch, feel, hug and hold.
“At least she didn’t suffer”. This falls into the same category of “they’re in a better place now”. We, the family, will get to that place eventually. We will comb the depths of our souls to grasp at the thin straws of understanding around the senselessness of the death and we will indeed say to each other, “she died peacefully in her bed”, or something similar, but this needs to be something that we arrive at and not something offered by a well-meaning outsider. We will come to this realization, whatever version of this it might be, but we need to come to this conclusion on our own, and not during the funeral or calling hours or during the period of Shiva (traditionally, the 7 days after the funeral in the Jewish tradition, which is held within 24 hours of death); in other words, a month or so after a death, it may be ok to broach this subject, but always use common sense and put some space between this kind of observation and the raw pain of a parent who has lost a child.
We live in such a squawk-box culture, with noise and commentary going 24/7 that we too often forget the beauty of silence and simplicity. Some of the most appreciated gestures of comfort that we received as a family came from people who had no words. It’s OK to say nothing – sometimes the space of silence says the most. It conveys the message that “there are no words”, or “I cannot imagine your pain” in a way that is deep and understood at the level of the soul.
A hug or simply grasping the person’s hand (if you’re not a hugger) and saying, “I’m so sorry” speaks volumes to the grieving family. It conveys your sadness, while at the same time saying “I have no idea the pain you are feeling”.
Saying nothing is OK, too, whether at the viewing/calling hours, funeral or in a card. Some of the most poignant sympathy cards we have received were from people who simply wrote, “Thinking of you and your family…”. It was simple and direct – we were not alone.
“You’re in my prayers”. You may have thought with my earlier admonition about counseling on the basis of your own religious beliefs that any conveyance of sympathy needed to be agnostic. This is not true. We have received beautiful cards and sentiments from people of all faiths, and continue to glean comfort from them all.
Candles have been lit, and several services of Mass have been spoken for Elise, while other words of comfort came from nuns in holy orders who have taken our family on as a prayer mission. We received cards with Native American prayers, and messages from devout Jews, Christians/Catholics, Pagans, Religious Scientists and unbelievers of every perspective and found comfort in each expression of love and sympathy. Different from saying, “Our God now has your little one in his care”, these expressions of sympathy say, “in our capacity as spiritual beings and from our religious perspective, we hold your family close in the sacred space of prayer for healing and comfort”.
Grief is a universal emotion, but as a diverse and complex people, we come to the understanding of life and death from different perspectives. It is the highest honor, I believe, to have people from faiths and belief structures that differ from our own to reach out and say, “I hold you close to God (Spirit) in the way that I know best,…”
At the end of the day, grieving families remember the love and goodwill of everyone who reaches out; regardless of the eloquence, or appropriateness of the words. We are grateful and humbled by the love, support and sympathies of everyone who took the time out of their busy lives to say, “this is a terrible moment in your lives, and I care enough to acknowledge that, and offer some words of sympathy as one human being to another”.
I confess, I have never truly appreciated the process of grieving until now. I was probably the most myopic and least sensitive in knowing what to say and how to say it, and so once again, my little Elise has taught me another important life lesson – one that I hope can help those of you who read this the next time you are faced with comforting someone during a time of loss.
For information on life and death from a non-Judeo-Christian perspective, I recommend this book, The Far Side of Forever
I would also recommend this book: The Wisdom of Death: Six Paths to Understanding Loss & Grief