Stop falling back on trite phrases!
When my oldest and most beloved friend died, another friend (far younger than I but astoundingly wise) spoke the most genuine words of condolence that I received.
“I know how much she meant to you,” my young friend said, “because you talked about her all the time.”
Then she followed up these compassionate words with concrete action. She sent a memorial gift to a charity in my beloved friend’s name, and gifted me a comforting box of tea.
Looking back on her words and gestures now, I realized that only she and just a very few loving friends reached out to provide me authentic remarks or efforts of sympathy. From most others, even immediate family, I received only customary, trite and uncomfortable reassurances.
But a precious few people made a sincere effort, through words or gestures, to comfort me, and it is their acts that I remember with deep appreciation. One acquaintance forwarded an e-card from my favorite site—which she sent, hilariously, to the wrong person, another of her friends with the same first name (who wondered uneasily if this was perhaps a premonition!) Confessing this blunder to me, she gave me the first genuine laugh I’d experienced in weeks, and proved the old axiom: It is, truly, the thought that counts. On another occasion, when I spiraled into meltdown during what was supposed to be a relaxed gathering of friends, one person took tangible action by handing me a tiny shot of a particularly delicious liquor, while the others present hastened to reassure me that it was all right to cry and that I was safe with them. They also reminded me that there was no particular time frame for the resolution of grief.
All too sadly, though, during most of my time of mourning, I received little response except the trite and vacuous phrase, “I’m sorry for your loss.” And it is that phrase which I’m now suggesting that you, that everyone, stop using. Stop saying. Stop repeating.
You may not be able to provide a memorial gift, or flowers for a funeral, or even a box of tea. You may not be present to hand a weeping person a tissue or a glass of water; you might not be in the room to hold a hand or wrap someone in your arms. You might even, heaven forfend, send the sympathy card to the wrong person! But you can speak truth—truth that comforts, truth that heals—to loss. You can make the effort of saying something genuine and personal. You can stop hiding behind the conventional.
Speak to the elephant in the room! Say their name. “I’m so very sorry you lost (name).” Say their title: your friend, your spouse, your husband, wife, daughter, son, mother, father, beloved, fiancé, partner, cat, dog, bird, companion, (god forbid) child.
Speak true concern and care: “I’m sorry that you’re grieving.” “I wish I could take the pain away.” “He wasn’t ‘just a pet’. He was a member of your family.”
Reassure the bereaved that their loved one is not forgotten: “I have memories, good memories, wonderful, interesting, even funny stories that you may never have heard of your lost one. When you’re ready to hear them, just ask me. I’ll share those memories.”
Ask the grieving person what they need to say, and be there, unflinchingly, to listen. Listen to the painful stories of bedside vigils. Listen to their anger—anger with the doctors who could not heal their loved one; anger with their loved one for leaving; anger even with God–and do not diminish it with platitudes. Tell them, and mean it, “Whatever you need to say, I’m here to listen, without judgment.”
Find the courage to speak an uncomfortable truth without evasion: “I know your relationship wasn’t easy, so I’m not certain what you’re feeling. But just know that I care.” “She was sick for a long time, and in so much pain. If you are feeling relief, that’s normal. It doesn’t mean you loved her any less.”
And, finally, if you can, take concrete, definable action. Help. Bring food and drink, yes—the oldest form of comfort, so that a grieving person not only need not cook, but can feed those who arrive making sympathy visits, or at least might be tempted to eat when eating is impossible. Sit with young children so a mother or father can try to sleep—or at least lie, sleepless, on their beds. Lend an outfit, or shoes. (When my grandmother died, I, in financial straits, had no decent black shoes to wear to her funeral. I’ve never forgotten that distress). Take children shopping for something appropriate to wear. Clean the house to make it presentable for guests. Provide a venue or supply food for the wake.
“I’m sorry for your loss” means no more than that you haven’t either the time or can’t be bothered to make an effort, or that you are too uncomfortable in facing someone’s grief to show genuine concern. But another’s experience of loss is when our own comfort matters least, and when authentic compassion is needed most.