“It’s not about saying the right things. It’s about doing the right things.” ~Unknown
Years ago, my family and I moved to a bucolic little town in New Zealand, where we were immediately swept up into a group of ex-pats and locals. We felt deeply connected to this community by the time I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy in the local hospital.
When our son was three months old, a doctor heard a heart murmur. Twenty-four hours later, he died.
In the days and weeks that followed, I wandered in my own fog of grief as I went about the necessary tasks of ordinary life: shopping for food, taking our other kids to school, doing the usual mounds of laundry.
Meanwhile, my new friends kept their distance. I saw them take great care to avoid me: to cross the street, switch supermarket aisles, literally do an about-face when they saw me coming.
Invitations stopped coming. The phone went silent. My grief was marked by a deeper isolation than I’d ever known.
Later, many of these people apologized. They told me they were terribly sad and distressed about what had happened, but hadn’t known what to say. My loss was so enormous that words seemed inadequate, even pitiful.
They said nothing, out of fear that they would say the wrong thing.
This sort of experience repeats itself in many different forms: a friend gets dumped by the love of her life, a colleague is given notice at a job he’s held for two decades, or a loved one receives the dreaded news that she has inoperable cancer.
What can you say?
While it’s not an easy question to answer, one thing is certain: It’s worse to say nothing than to say the wrong thing. Here are five ways to respond helpfully to people who have suffered an enormous loss.
1. Manage your own feelings first.
When we learn that disaster has befallen a loved one, we initially feel shock. Our heart rate increases, our thoughts either speed up or slow down, and we may experience nausea or dizziness.
The anxiety we feel is real and personal. Our instinct, though, is to ignore it, find ways to numb it or minimize it. That’s a mistake.
If we address our own anxiety first, we’ll be in a much stronger position to respond well to the person most directly affected. Do the things you know how to do to manage stress. A walk in the woods, some meditation or yoga, or talking to a trusted friend can help.
Make sure your own body and emotions are regulated before you turn to the person in grief.
2. Now focus on the other person.
Remember that the isolation they feel is almost as painful as the shock and the sadness of the loss itself. If you avoid them because you don’t know what to say, this avoidance serves only your needs.
Our friends and other loved ones need our comfort, support, and involvement during times of sorrow.
Although there isn’t a right thing to say, there are some things to never say. They include the current favorite, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “I know just how you feel.” How do you know there’s a reason, and what difference would it make to a grieving person, anyway? And you don’t know how they feel—only they do.
3. Admit that you don’t know what to say.
That’s a good start. Try something simple that breaks the ice and starts a conversation, or at least sends a message to the other person that they’re not alone.
“I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I wish I could say the perfect thing, but I know there’s nothing to fix it. I just wanted you to know I care and am here with you.”
If the person is willing to talk, listen. It’s the single most vital thing you can do.
Listen to their story without interrupting. Don’t turn the conversation back to you with statements like, “I know what you’re going through—my dog died last year.”
Don’t tell them what they will, or should, feel. Simply acknowledge their pain and listen to what it’s like for them.
We all have different styles of managing shock and distress. Some people are angry, while others seem numb. Still others turn to gallows humor. Your job is not to correct them but to give them space to be the way they need to be.
5. Rather than saying, ”Let me know if I can do anything,” offer to do something practical and specific.
Taking on an ordinary task is often most helpful. Offer to shop for groceries, run errands, drive the kids somewhere, or to cook a meal or two. Ask if you can call tomorrow, or if they want to be left alone for a few days.
When Survey Monkey’s CEO Dave Goldberg died suddenly, his wife, Sheryl Sandberg, wrote the following:
When I am asked, “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, “My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am?” When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.
Today, as I recall the loss of my own infant son, I think about the one person who did truly comfort me. She arrived at my house with a bottle of fine brandy and said, “This is everyone’s worst nightmare. I am so, so sorry this has happened.”
Then we sat on the lawn and she poured me a drink as she listened to every horrible detail.
As I look back now, I still feel how much her gesture helped me cope through those early days of pain. She didn’t try to fix me or try to make sense of what happened. She didn’t even try to comfort me. The comfort she gave came through her being in it with me.
You can’t fix what happened, but you can sit with someone, side by side, so they don’t feel quite so alone. That requires only intention, a willingness to feel awkward, and an open, listening heart. It’s the one gift that can make a difference.