No one enjoys attending funerals — during the holidays, or any time of year. They are generally filled with difficult and uncomfortable moments.
It seems like every conversation — whether it was with an old friend or a total stranger — begins with the exact same phrase, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Most conversations didn’t go far beyond that, partly because there’s not much to say in response except, “Thank you.”
Some people managed to mix in another platitude like, “At least her suffering is over,” or “He’s in a better place now” but it all starts to sound like a broken record pretty quickly; one that we all have heard many times before, seen played out in movies and even unknowingly participated in myself.
Why do so many of us struggle with what to say to someone who is grieving? Perhaps it’s because of our cultural death phobia, and the way it pathologizes everything related to sadness. If we’re not better at dealing with grief, then it’s because we’ve never been taught better. Unfortunately, that leaves the majority of people with only one stock phrase in their vocabulary, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
In a recent play I attended at Open Book Theatre, “Be a good little Widow” the young widow really did not know how to grieve appropriately, according to her mother-in-law. This leads me to assume that there is no “correct way” to help those who are suffering from the death of a loved one.
Using the language of loss as a euphemism for death is one of many ways in which our culture conceals the reality of death, perpetuates our phobias about it, and keeps us trapped. Spoken by a griever, “I lost my grandmother in 2005” is being used to avoid saying the word “died.”
You don’t have to lose someone just because they died. You may draw comfort from the idea that you are living in the presence of departed loved ones. You may also draw consolation from your faith that you will actually see them again. Speaking to them in quiet moments when you are alone — like meditation, being in nature or remembering special occasions — may also be a source of contentment.
Experts in the field of grief care (you can Google Stephen Jenkinson, for example) are starting to recommend using the language of suffering, healing and overcoming challenges instead. The language of loss refutes the notion that there might be an upside to grief, a spiritual deepening that can result from being exposed to something that’s an inevitable consequence of being born and choosing to love each other. Through Jenkinson’s thoughts of shifting to the language of suffering, healing and overcoming challenges instead, death and grieving can once again become a redemptive process.
At a recent occasion, I overheard someone say, “I’m sorry for your suffering. I’m here with you.” I immediately knew that person somehow understood something that had been missed by all the close friends and family who had been sorry for their loss, but not “present” with their suffering.
For those wanting to improve their grief communication by eliminating clichés with more accurate, helpful, and authentic responses, but still aren’t sure what to say, here are a few other choices in no particular order, that I have researched in attempt to be a better help for friends and family.
I’m sorry you’re suffering right now, but I’m here with you and willing to help any way I can. Is there anything you need right now?
I’m sorry for whatever challenges might lie ahead for you, but I’m here and willing to help. Would it be okay if I call next week just to check in with you?
Please accept my deepest condolences. I can’t imagine what you must be going through right now, but I know enough about grief to know that it can be very challenging. Don’t hesitate to call me if there’s anything I can do to help.
I’m so sorry to hear about _____. I’m sure you’re going to miss him/her terribly. How are you holding up?
I know there’s nothing I can say right now to make things better, but I also know that having someone to talk to at times like this is really important, so don’t hesitate to call me whenever you need to.
Follow any of those thoughts with what you loved most about the deceased or tell a story about a favorite memory of them and I think most people will be pleased with the deep level of connection that’s instantly created. Just by being willing to listen, following up often and being present in the moment, certainly the bereaved will feel less isolated and better supported in their time of need.
Kathy Kane is business manager and co-publisher of the Trenton Trib. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (734) 676-0850. Comments and story ideas also can be emailed to the Trib at email@example.com