The massacre in Aurora, Colorado, brings up the idea of the fragility of life. Finding the “right” words to say to a grieving person can be a struggle. You want to offer comfort, but aren’t quite sure how to go about it. After losing my daughter, father-in-law, brother, and former son-in-law in 2007, I received words of comfort and hurtful words as well.
One sentence to avoid is, “I don’t know what to say.” This doesn’t comfort the bereaved person and may even upset you. Unfortunately, many of us resort to platitudes and unsolicited advice when speaking with those who are grieving. As Rabbi Earl A. Grollman writes in his best-selling book, Living When a Loved One has Died, everyone seems to know what is best for you.
But they don’t really know what you are going through. Grief has common symptoms, yet each person’s grief is unique. People who have experienced grief often say, “I know just how you feel.” This makes the bereaved person want to scream, notes Rabbi Grollman. We may also say the deceased “lived to a ripe old age.” His answer to this statement: “At any age death is a robber.”
I’ve studied loss, grief, and grief recovery for years, and keep a list of things not to say. My list includes these statements.
It’s probably for the best.
This is a blessing in disguise.
Every cloud has a silver lining.
God must have needed another angel in heaven.
He is at peace.
Time heals all wounds.
God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.
What can you say? As I look back on my grief journey, I think the most comforting words were, “I’m so sorry.” That was all I needed to hear. Many friends told me to call them if I needed something. But the bereaved rarely call because we don’t want to burden others and often don’t know what we need. We don’t call because we don’t want to appear weak.
The Jewish faith has traditional words of comfort. This faith also encourages the bereaved to remember, with statements such as “Tell me what your loved one was like.” This sentence gives the grieving person a chance to say his or her loved one’s name and recall happy memories.
For me, the question, “How are you?” was extremely painful. In America, this question is so common we don’t think about it. For the bereaved, the question can be dicey. Some days I didn’t know how I was and other days I was in despair. Instead of asking,”How are you?” reframe the question and ask “How is today going for you?”
Sharing memories may also comfort the bereaved. I just wrote a sympathy note to a widower. His wife had been a member of my study club for years and, since I remembered her as a brilliant, caring and giving person, I said this in my note. According to Rabbi Grollman, bereaved people are thankful for your company, but not your advice. So think before you speak, be brief, and give the grieving person a heartfelt hug.