How To Be When Someone You Know Dies

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:

Apart from a few, all the words are written from the heart by Jenny and her twin sister and designed by her husband.

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.

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4 Responses to How To Be When Someone You Know Dies

  1. Mary Helen Tieken, RN, BSN May 17, 2017 at 1:27 pm #

    This could not be truer. I help facilitate a Life After Loss grief support group and I appreciate this information and education. The process of grieving is so chaotic and some people have some of the “darndest” things to say when just a hug would do. But, not only as a grief support facilitator and a registered nurse who works in hospice, I say without a doubt, that the effects of grieving must be better addressed by our medical professions and not medicated away or viewed off-handedly as a minor infliction that will surely pass in a few weeks. We need to talk about how to work through grief and we need to LISTEN better.
    Thank you!

    • Jane Duncan Rogers May 18, 2017 at 9:48 am #

      Thank YOU Mary Helen! Chaotic is a very good word to describe grief.

  2. Katie May 17, 2017 at 7:39 pm #

    I think it’s really lovely to recall something about the person who has died. So often people shy away from saying anything at all about that person, as if they’re suddenly a taboo subject, when the bereaved person is really missing them. It’s important to gauge whether they’re ready to speak or not, so in the very early days, a simple comment such as ‘I’ll miss their sense of humour’ or ‘their work will leave a great legacy’, something complimentary but brief that requires no further conversation is good, it leaves the bereaved open to talk if they want to and not if they don’t. Later on, I think people want to speak about their deceased loved one but find that not many people are willing because they feel too awkward, so offering something like an cheerful anecdote is a great way to open conversation and let the bereaved person talk about them if they want to. Letting people remember, be sad and happy over the memories while in your company is a great thing I think. You just need to be careful not to criticise the deceased or uncover something that might be controversial that the bereaved didn’t know about.

    • Jane Duncan Rogers May 18, 2017 at 9:47 am #

      These are very wise words, Katie. Thank you so much, really appreciate your contribution here.

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