It’s difficult, let’s face it. Someone you know has died. Relatives whom you may or may not know will be grieving. You maybe are grieving, too. How on earth do you acknowledge this? Here’s an excerpt from my book Gifted By Grief: A True Story of Cancer, Loss and Rebirth, where I reflect on the strange things that people say to someone who is grieving.
“I never knew before how very important a card, email, text or phone call could be; or a hug without words, or just someone’s presence. I was surprised by who sent cards: some were from people I hadn’t known knew Philip, or from those whose our lives had only briefly touched. I was also surprised by who didn’t send cards, or acknowledge his death in any way at all. This was my first introduction to how odd some people are around death. I quickly learnt how much I appreciated it when someone we had known said something to acknowledge what had happened. It didn’t matter what, even if it was, “I don’t know what to say.” It’s true: it IS hard to know what to say, especially if you’re just an acquaintance.
Someone shook my hand. “Please accept my condolences.” Very formal. Fine on a card but it sounded very odd spoken out loud.
“So sorry you have lost Philip,” said someone else. I thought, “ Thank you, but it’s me who’s lost, not him.”
Another acquaintance approached, and expressed how sorry he was – and then went on to tell me how he knew how I felt as his father had just died. Inside my head, I screamed, “Your father?! And you liken that to losing my husband? For God’s sake!” On the outside, though, I just nodded my thanks.
Then someone else announced,
“You’re very accident-prone, you know.”
“What? What have I done?” I was shocked; had I caused an accident somehow and not even realised it?
“No, no, I mean you’re likely to have an accident; it’s well- known that people who are bereaved are accident-prone, so be very careful driving; better not to drive at all, actually.”
This was someone I hardly knew. By now, though, I understood that people do say odd things when all they are really wanting to do is help in some way. So I politely accepted what he was saying – and then ignored it. How could he know how utterly unhelpful it was to be told this, and on top of it, not to drive? How could he know it would make me feel like punching him? I listened politely to him expound his views, while all the time paying no attention in my head. It was almost laughable.
Later, I told this story to a trusted friend, who exclaimed exasperatedly, “Jane, you are not accident-prone. If people are not able to feel, or process their feelings, then they may well be accident-prone, but you don’t fall into that category, and you aren’t.”
Even in one of my spiritual group meetings, someone said, “When you and Philip were there the last time we met, you were asking for healing and prayers, and I couldn’t give the healing because I knew Philip wasn’t going to make it.” In my journal, I wrote:
God! Who in their right minds thinks that is a useful or sensible thing to say to someone newly bereaved? For goodness’ sake! People are so weird. So weird.
Moral of the story: When you meet someone whose loved one has died, do acknowledge it, but keep it simple. You have no idea how that person is going to be processing what is going on. Simple words, or a gesture is fine. Even saying “I don’t know what to say,” and then keeping silent worked very well for me. Just a card/email/text – any form of communication, really, will do. It’s the non-acknowledgment that really hurts.
And that brings me to a wonderful person whom I met recently. Her name is Jenny Oates and she offers a great service with her company Trees of Life Inspirations http://www.treeol.co.uk/.
If you live in the UK you may be very familiar with her cards, and she now has a series of cards to send to someone who has been bereaved. They are lovely, my favourite being this one:
This year she was asked to design a card especially for when a young person , or baby, has died – and that also includes miscarriages, which can be as tragic as any other death.
So if you really do feel at a loss for words, you can let a card do it for you. Especially in these days of email, texts and messages, taking the time to handwrite and post a card can really mean a lot.
And I would love to hear from you about what you advocate saying – how do you express your condolences? What actions have you taken? How do you acknowledge someone’s death? Leave a comment below.