Sometimes, words spoken to individuals in grief do not make a difference; so many words have been said that they don’t pierce the thin protective layer that we develop while grieving. We may have heard so many words that they don’t even distract us from our grief. Additionally, words can miss the mark. Words such as “I know how you feel” or “it’s time to move on” not only miss the mark but may bring further injury or distress.
Sometimes, the effects of words are related to the particular person or situation. For example, when my mother died two years ago, a family friend said, “Your mother lived a good life.” I agreed with his words. My mother had indeed lived a rich, full life, and this thought brought me comfort. However, if my mother had been much younger, not 99 and a half years old, I might have felt the pain of a life cut short. I might have resented or resisted those words.
Another person said, “You and your sister took good care of your mother.” Those were also comforting to me. My sister and I lived some distance from mother, but we worked out arrangements to be present and make sure her needs were met. We had some very difficult end-of-life decisions to make, but we never disagreed.
I consider the greatest grief gift that I received was the increased closeness my sister and I felt in caring for mother before and after her death. Yet, those same words could have resulted in feelings of guilt or resentment. Individuals have shared with me the pain and division in their families following the death of a parent or other family member. There may have been disagreements and conflicts concerning care. Often, earlier unresolved differences come floating to the surface. Sometimes, this brokenness is difficult to repair especially when everyone is grieving in a different way.
I have wondered a lot about these varying reactions to the words of others. I have come to the conclusion that it is nothing short of a miracle that people often bring comfort with their words. Why do the words often miss the mark? The ideas of insensitivity or a lack of understanding come to mind as does a lack of experience with grief. There is also the possibility that the death brings up the speaker’s own vulnerability that loss will happen to them.
But, I finally settled on the idea that the loss is unique to the person who experienced it. In other words, no one has ever experienced that relationship exactly as you have. No one else knows the ups and the downs, ins and outs, joys and sorrows that you experienced with the person who died. So, when my mother died, my sister and I both lost our parent. But she was a different mother to each of us. Our experiences of grief were unique. Your grief reflects the uniqueness of your collective ties with your loved one that no one else has experienced.
Sometimes, words can be powerfully healing. There are people who have not walked in our shoes, but they slide their feet into our shoes and speak comforting words out of their ability to have empathy with us. They speak out of compassion. I remember a card that a friend sent that was particularly meaningful to me. It continues to sit on the shelf next to my computer. It states, “We do not grieve without first loving. We do not love without gaining more than we could ever lose.”
Sometimes, saying aloud the name of the person who died can be comforting. It acknowledges their continuing presence in our lives. Sometimes, when we feel stuck, someone can suggest alternative ways of looking at things that has the possibility of transforming our grief. Words that acknowledge how difficult loss can be emotionally, practically, and relationally can help us heal.
In contrast to speaking, there is also the option of saying nothing, which can be as painful as when people say things that miss the mark. It is surprising that individuals, often including family members and friends, avoid saying anything. Indeed, you will hear people say that they were “at a loss for words.” There is a lot of fear of saying “the wrong thing.” Family members often keep silent, as they are afraid they will upset you. And sometimes, people who have an understanding of the uniqueness of your grief don’t speak, as they “don’t know where you are.”
An alternative option to using words or not is to be fully present and listen. Listening doesn’t involve interrupting, giving advice, or trying to fix grief. Grief can be unspeakable; yet, real comfort can come when someone admits, “I don’t know what to say, but I want to be with you at this hard time.” That kind of presence communicates that someone cares.
A divinity student once asked me for things to say in the midst of loss. I responded that I didn’t know of any “one size fits all” answers. I suggested to him the importance of taking a servant role. Being present and listening deeply for what that person in grief needs. A gentle touch or welcomed hug, a compassionate gesture, or simply looking a person in the eyes with kindness can be as powerful as spoken words.