How to Treat a Grieving Person: Be Real

I am now two years out from the unexpected and traumatic death of my husband, which means countless people have lifted me up and cared for me when I could not do it myself. In and among those wonderful helpful friends and family, there have been some responses to my grief and mourning that were not just unhelpful, but hurtful. Given recent national conversations around grief, I feel the need to say something about what words people said to me that were most supportive, and highlight some responses that did not work for me.

The socially accepted, “sorry for your loss,” feels empty most of the time; people say it because they do not know what to say. The word “loss” doesn’t even cover or touch upon what it means to have a death in your family or close circle.

In the United States, it is common for people to be uncomfortable talking about death, as well as being around someone who is suffering because of a death. I did not really know this until I was confronted with it. The silence can feel awkward and uneasy; filling the void is what most people feel inclined to do. Thinking about our own mortality is disquieting. Most people would rather pretend life can go on the same as before, but it truly cannot.

My husband will never be there to hold me when my mother dies or when our son gets married. He will not ever leave his tools all over the house or put the sifter away in the wrong place. He is not here to forget my birthday. He is not here and never will be again. Imagine that about your own people for just a moment. What would you need or want? It will be different for everyone.

I must disclose my extreme level of extroversion, which impacted my needs. If the person you are comforting is not an extrovert, they may need something different. I did not want to be alone, like even for five minutes. I had four distinct time slots every day (organized by a friend using a website) of visitors for at least a month after he died. We walked a lot, often in silent tears.

Those visitors had different skill sets. Some were doers who helped clean the basement or went through the files to figure out what to keep and what to shred. Others helped me with the seemingly infinite technology-based to-dos;  still others cooked and brought meals, not that I could eat. Others held me while I cried, others slept in my bed and petted me, and some just talked about their normal lives when I needed a breather from the anguish; still others simply listened.

Many people shared memories of him, which were at times a comfort and sometimes painful, but necessary for me to get where I am today.  Dear friends held my hope when I misplaced it and could not believe I would ever want to live again. Many supported my getting professional help when I needed it: doctors, psychotherapists, massage therapists, acupuncturist, chiropractor and eventually an-inpatient stay for atypical anorexia.

As far as kind and cherished words go: Say something that you know to be honest and comes from a kind, loving, heart-centered place. Was their laugh unforgettable? When did you meet them? What will you always remember about them? Favorite thing they used to say? Piercing dark eyes?

Please do NOT say: “Everything happens for a reason,” or “God needed another angel,” or “At least he/she is not suffering anymore,”  or “When are you going to get over this?” or “Don’t cry. He wouldn’t want you to be sad.”

These words sting, slash and burn those of us who are missing our deceased loved one. We, if I may be bold and speak for all grievers for a moment, do NOT need more hurting. Please be a dear and try to minimize our hurting by taking to heart this advice.

Pat phrases you got on the internet or saw on a TV show do not help our healing. Be real with us, I beg you. Please do not turn away from the pain we are brave enough to show you. Someone may thank you and say you saved them on that super hard 16 hour crying jag day. Grief is the fingerprint that loves leaves behind.

Kim Shute

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Kim has experienced bereavement first hand after her husband of 19 years died suddenly of Leukemia at the age of 48. Kim has been a stay at home mother for seventeen years and homeschooled her only son for most of that time. She has a B.A. in theatre/dance and a M.F.A. in Performance Arts. Kim has done course work in Individual and Group Crisis Intervention with first responders, clinician and clergy for Hurricane Sandy and 9/11. She has done bookkeeping for local contractors, taught ESL for a literacy program, run her own gardening business, taught speech communications and acting. She also helped managed and promote a twenty million dollar housing project in Massachusetts. She has been heavily involved for ten years at Channing Church where she researched, wrote and offered many services as well as helped with marketing and community outreach. Since her husband’s death she has been reading and studying up on the funeral industry and grief support. She has always loved writing and is thrilled with the opportunity to share her stories to help others feel understood and less alone in this crazy club, no one ever wants to join. She lives in Newport, Rhode Island with her teenage son and retired mother.

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