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What Are The Magical Words?

Originally published in April 2010.

[1]As the months and years since my Dad’s death have begun to add up, so have the number of people who have asked me what to say or do for their friend who recently lost a loved one. Unfortunately, I still don’t know any magical words.

All I know are my experiences. And remembering back to the weeks following my Dad’s death, there were several well intended comments and gestures, but no perfect one. This is not because all the people around me said or did the wrong thing. It’s because I was angry after my Dad died.  I was angry that he was gone, jealous that my friends still had their “perfect” lives, and annoyed with those who I felt were pretending to understand.

If your grieving friend reacts negatively to a genuine, well-meaning comment, don’t take it personally. And don’t give up on them. When grief and the emotions that come with grief dominate your thoughts, your logic is clouded and you say and do things you normally would not.

With that in mind, I still don’t know if I have the best “advice” for those who want to help grieving friends in their lives. Instead, I can give you a view into my mindset immediately following my Dad’s death and hope that it helps you understand where your grieving friend may be.

“How are you?”
Because my Dad’s death initially consumed my thoughts, in my mind, “How are you?” really meant, “How are you now that your Dad is dead?”  This was especially the case when someone asked in a patronizing way… “How aaaaaarrrrrrrrreeeeee you?” There were countless occasions when I had to restrain myself from screaming “How do you think I am?!”

Also, I felt pressured knowing that most people wanted me to respond in a positive way. People wanted to know that I was doing OK—that I was good even.

It was as if they needed the reassurance that I was OK so they too could feel OK about the fact that their lives had not stopped in the same way mine had. So, instead of hearing how I actually felt, most people heard a lie. The people who asked “How are you holding up?” typically received the more honest answer because I felt as if they had already accepted that my response might be negative or pessimistic, yet were ready to hear it.

The important thing to keep in mind when asking “How are you?” is that your tone can greatly convey if you are genuinely seeking an honest answer. Only ask if you really mean it and are ready for a range of responses. Be ready to hear “I’m not OK.” Be ready for tears. Also, be ready for “I’m doing fine.” And accept whatever answer you get without question.

“I understand…”  “I know how you feel…”
Just don’t say these. My automatic thought in response? No, you don’t.

Even if you’ve had your own loss, don’t say you understand. Every loss is different, and everyone’s grief is different. Immediately following my Dad’s death, I felt as if nobody could possibly understand the pain I was feeling, and I grew resentful towards those that claimed they did.

Instead, say something along the lines of “I get that feeling, and it really sucks.” Since you can’t understand everything about your friend’s situation, identifying with a single feeling or aspect of the situation is more helpful that the blanket phrase of “I understand.”

Also, if you’ve had a loss, share your story. While I wasn’t able to believe that you could understand how I felt in that moment, it helped so much to hear that someone else knew how awful it was and that I was not alone.

“I’m sorry”
“I’m sorry” was the single most uttered phrase I heard in the months following my Dad’s death. Because “I’m sorry” is typically said as an apology, I felt as if I needed to respond with a “thank you” or “it’s OK.”

Whenever someone told me they were sorry I felt awkward because they had not done anything to merit an apology. To me, “I’m sorry” doesn’t feel like a complete sentence. What exactly are you sorry for?… Are you sorry for bringing up my Dad, or are you sorry that my loss happened?

The most helpful way a friend finished this sentence was “I’m really sorry that you’re having to go through this.” She acknowledged how hard it was for me, and it felt great to know that someone, who had never had a loss, recognized that it wasn’t easy.

Give me an outlet
After my Dad died, my fifth grade class seemed to become a fatherless class overnight. Everyone was not only afraid to talk about my Dad, but also afraid to bring up their own. I wanted to tell people I wasn’t going to break if fathers were mentioned; to not treat me as if I had a ‘Fragile’ sign taped to my forehead.

Things already felt strange for me (my Dad had just died!), and it was even weirder knowing that people were censoring what they said around me. I wanted to be able to bring up my Dad in conversation and not have everyone fall silent, and I didn’t want people to stop talking about their lives because of me.

Instead, I loved when people presented me with an opportunity to talk about my Dad. My favorite thing was, and still is, when people share their memories of him. Although it can be bittersweet at times, sharing memories not only helps me remember my Dad and learn new things about him, but it also gives me the chance to talk about him.

“He’s in a better place…”
Don’t feel as if you always need to be positive when talking to a grieving person. I didn’t always want to hear about how it would get better, nor did I want to hear about the silver-lining, or light at the end of the tunnel.

I had  many people tell me that God has a plan, my Dad was in a better place, he was still with me, etc. My thoughts were simple – I don’t care whose plan it is, I don’t like this plan, and it would be better if my Dad were still with me… here, on Earth, physically.

Others told me to be strong, but there was already enough pressure on me to be strong. Both self-imposed and circumstantial. Telling me to stay strong, or be strong, only made it worse.

I really just wanted someone to sit with me and say:

“You know what, you’re right, it sucks and I hate that you have to go through this, but I’m here for you…and I’ll still be here for you when you want to cry or when you’re angry. If you need to yell about it to feel better, I’m here.  If you want to vent, I’m here.  And, if you need a laugh, I’m here.  I may not understand what you’re going through, but I’m here to listen, and I’ll still be here days or years from now.”

Even with that in mind, there are no perfect words.

Just… say something…
Many people think that not saying anything will be better than accidentally saying the wrong thing, but the truth is, the worst thing is to say or do nothing. Years later, I honestly don’t remember who said the “wrong” thing. I remember those who were there for me despite not always knowing what to say.

In reality, when you mean well, it’s hard to say the completely wrong thing. Don’t over think it, If you’re truly genuine, your support will shine through, and just being there will help your friend.