It can be difficult to know what to say when somebody is grieving. Fear of saying the wrong thing can lead us to avoid the bereaved person altogether.
If we were given clear guidelines about what to say after somebody dies, we would all feel more comfortable. Whether we have lost somebody dear to us or are wishing to offer our support.
With this in mind, I am sharing some of the things people said that comforted me after my father died suddenly.
1. “It sounds like you were both trying your best, and that’s all you can really do.”
After somebody dies it is natural to experience guilt. You wish you’d visited them more or pushed them to go the doctors. You regret mean things that you said fifteen years or fifteen days ago.
I hadn’t spoken to my dad for a week or so because I’d been processing some difficult stuff in therapy. I’d needed some time to myself, and so I’d asked for it. This was the first time I’d made such a request.
My guilt around this was agonising, and I found myself talking it through time and again with different friends. My heart ached for a do-over and I was desperate for reassurance. I felt stupid and negligent for asking for space.
What was I thinking? I asked myself, late at night and first thing in the morning.
Eventually, a good friend who lost his dad in his twenties found the magic words that helped me to stop punishing myself. “It sounds like you and your dad were both trying your best, and that’s all you can really do in a relationship.”
I realised he was right. I was trying my best to make the relationship work smoothly, and so was my dad. If he hadn’t have died, we would have talked in a matter of days. His death was the problem, not my request.
2. “It isn’t possible to live a close relationship as though every day were your last. ”
Sudden death means a relationship is over without a second’s warning. You did not give your consent. You do not approve. This can occur at any time. My dad and I were in a transitional period when he died. Our dynamic was changing.
My whole life, I spoke to him every week. And yet, the week he died, I hadn’t spoken to him at all. At first, the pain of this was so searing I felt I would never recover.
When a clever friend asked me if she could do anything to help, I asked for words of wisdom about how we get over the death of somebody we have unfinished business with.
She pointed out that there is always unfinished business in any important relationship. “You cannot live a close relationship as though every day were your last. It just isn’t possible,” she said.
In a significant relationship, tabs are left open and questions left unasked. In the midst of life, our conversations are ongoing. We dip in and out of them as time and interest allows. It is rare that we end an interaction with any particularly satisfying sense of closure. After all the answers to questions often give you more questions. Such is life.
Sudden deaths, like the rest of life, rarely provide a neat sense of closure.
3. “When someone thinks of a person they love, they don’t just think about what their relationship was like in the last week.”
The relationships you have with the most important people in your life are multilayered. Thinking of my dad I recall him carrying me on his shoulders when I was a toddler and teaching me how to swim when I was an infant and buying me a pint when I was a teen, all in the same moment.
This is why it’s hard to fall out of love. Because we can still remember what it felt like to adore this person we no longer want in our lives.
When a parent thinks of a child, it is like a palimpsest of their different iterations. None of us think of our relationships in such simple terms. We take a longer view. We cannot help it.
4. “Do you want to have lunch/coffee/a chat?”
Your grieving friend still needs to eat, and a simple offer of lunch could be just the thing that helps them get dressed today.
It’s a shame that we don’t talk more about grief and how to deal with it, seeing as we all have to face this in the course of our lives. This is why friends, managers and colleagues who know how to offer good support are invaluable.
If you are unsure how to proceed, ask your colleague/family member how they would like to be supported. Let them know you are aware that they have been through something, that you are available to talk about their loss or whatever they watched on telly last night.
Whatever you do, don’t avoid the bereaved. And don’t avoid the subject of their dead loved one. A warmhearted email is better than nothing. An awkward acknowledgment of the loss is better than nothing.
Imagine how you might feel if you lost a person incredibly dear to you. What would you be feeling? What would you need? We aren’t all the same, but grief and loss are universal experiences. Most people will feel anxious, unfocused, sad and sensitive after bereavement.
But if we can acknowledge that death is a part of life, and get more comfortable talking about the aftermath of grief we would all be better off.