Unlearning What To Say & Do

What’s one of the first things we’re told when we experience loss as young children? When something disappoints us, or our feelings get hurt, or perhaps a more serious loss occurs, such as the death of a pet or a beloved human?

“Don’t cry, honey,” or “Don’t feel bad.” The hidden message is, “Whatever you’re feeling right now is not OK.” Of course, parents and other authority figures don’t intend for that to be the message, but the harm is done nonetheless.

“If you’re going to cry, go to your room.” If someone else is sad we’re told to “give them space” or “leave them alone.” Again, the message is certain feelings are not for public consumption, and that “bad” feelings are to be experienced in isolation. So when we experience loss and respond with sadness and tears, many of us automatically seek a private place, or cover our faces, or apologize for our tears.

Tears and sadness are natural and normal and necessary in the face of loss. 

We suppress our feelings and go off into a corner to experience our pain, because we’ve been taught others can’t handle it. But loss is already so painful. Isolation only compounds the hurt!

As grievers we hear all sorts of unhelpful messages from others. I’m just as guilty as the next person of uttering harmful, unhelpful, and habituated things, such as: “At least she’s not suffering any longer.” Which may very well be true intellectually, but emotionally it adds nothing to the griever’s experience. The pain’s source is in the heart, not the head, so these intellectual “truths” miss the mark.

Recently, when my sister had just died, I assured my mother she’d “feel better with time.” As if the passage of time, all by itself, would do anything to alleviate her grief. Our emotional states do indeed shift from one minute to the next, but I’m talking about achieving deeper recovery, which requires more than sitting around watching the hours tick away. It requires action. Which explains why, even after decades (a.k.a. “time”), a person can still be experiencing the debilitating, even paralyzing, effects of unresolved grief. [More on Unresolved Grief in a future blog post.]

When my sister died, I should have just acknowledged my mother’s pain. A simple: “I can’t even imagine how painful this is for you” would have sufficed. Even though I too have mourned the death of my child, I did not lose this child. Furthermore, my mother and I had very different relationships with the children we lost. Every relationship is unique. None of us knows or understands the pain someone else is experiencing in their loss. At best, we have a recollection of the pain we experienced in ours.

I have had the good sense to never say to my mother, “I know exactly what you’re going through.” Because I don’t. So when your friend’s mother dies, and your mother has already died years earlier, please, please, please resist the urge to say, “I know your pain.” There may be similarities, but chances are those similarities mean nothing to your friend in her moment of loss. She wants her unique pain and her loss of this particular relationship with this distinct individual acknowledged.

Being supportive of others in their time of loss is tricky mostly because we’ve been misinformed about what works. We’ve grown up believing we are doing and saying kind things when we’re not. Let’s unlearn our early training and replace it with actions and words that actually help. Here are just a few suggestions:

  • “I’m so sorry for the loss of your [fill in the blank].”
  • “I hope you find comfort wherever, whenever and from whomever it feels best.”
  • “I wish I had the right words; just know how much I care.”
  • “I have no idea what you’re feeling, but I’m here for you regardless.”
  • No “shoulds.” Examples: “you should…get out of the house; eat; get some rest…” The word “should” implies that whatever the griever IS doing, however the griever is being, is wrong or not enough. Judgment is the last thing any griever needs. “Would you like to…?” is a better way to phrase suggestions. It gives the griever control at a time when everything probably feels out of control.
  • Don’t ask, “How can I help?” The person probably has no idea; grief messes with your head. Just help. Cook a meal, walk the dog, take out the trash, do a bit of  laundry, buy some groceries, bring in the mail, answer the phone, wash the dishes. Ask yourself, “If I were sick, bedridden, unable to do for myself, what would I love for someone else to do for me?” Although grief is not an illness (it’s a normal and natural response to loss) it is exhausting.
  • Ask if the person wants or needs a hug; don’t assume hugging is what’s best in the moment. “Would you like a hug? It’s OK if you don’t.” Loss and grief can be discombobulating. Personal boundaries may falter, so be extra respectful of the griever’s personal space. Also, no “burping” during hugs. The action of patting someone on the back during a hug can distract and cut off the griever’s emotional experience. Simply holding someone is actually more intimate and reaches a deeper part of our hurting selves.
  • And finally…try saying nothing! Be present. Hold the emotionally charged space in silence. “If it’s OK, I’m just going to sit here with you.” Position yourself close to the person, preferably not touching them (I can’t stress this enough because our impulse is often TO touch). Simply witness while the griever emotes (cries, laughs, rages…). This is POWERFUL! And ask if they’d like a (non-burping) hug afterwards.

[Photo by pexels.com]




  1. Celenia, your wisdom is profound and your empathy touching. I love the suggestions you’ve made here. And I am so sorry for your loss. Grief is an emotion that is similar to the waves on the ocean – they come in and we feel swamped by sadness and as it recedes, perhaps only for moments, we feel a faint sense of relief, only to feel swamped again with the next wave. At least, that’s been my experience. I am wishing you the blessings of comfort and peace and empathetic people to accompany you on your journey. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 2 people

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