I wouldn’t know what to say. I don’t know them very well. It’s too soon. It’s too late. I don’t know if I should bring something. I’ll just send a card. There are already a lot of people there. No one else is there. It’s too sad. No one will go with me. It reminds me of when I lost someone. They might be resting. I don’t want to upset anybody. I’ll just end up crying. I don’t like it when other people cry. I’ll just wait and catch them outside. I’ll do it tomorrow/next week/whenever. You’re better at these things than I am, you should go. I don’t have anyone to stay with the kids. I don’t know when to end the visit. I don’t meddle in peoples’ business.
As soon as you are finished making excuses, we can begin a discussion on visiting a household that has suffered a loss.
Here’s what we’ll talk about:
Doing something is better than nothing
What you might say
Things to avoid saying
Things you can do
Things you can skip doing
First of all, accept that this is not going to be easy. Necessary, yes, but not easy. But it also isn’t as hard as you think. It’s very important to remember that this is not a social visit. Don’t expect to be offered refreshment. Bring some with you to share. You’re not expected to stay long, but you are expected. “I won’t keep you, I just wanted to express my condolences” and then vamoose. If the person asks you to stay, extend the visit for just a short time. As time goes on, longer visits will be welcome. Again, bring nourishing food and beverage when you go.
Deep breath. Here we go.
Think of a time you asked a parent or spouse a question, and they didn’t answer. You probably had several reactions. Did they hear me? Am I being ignored? Does that mean yes or no? This is rude! They don’t care about what’s important to me.
Whatever your reaction, you didn’t like it. You wanted to be recognized. Even an answer you wouldn’t like is better than total silence!
A person mourning a loss feels the same way. Do you not know what happened? Can you imagine how my world has changed? Does anyone care? Is there someone who can assure me I’ll live through this? Has anyone had this experience that can give me some pointers? I’m not functioning well, and could use some help picking up the slack. Is anybody there?
The rest of this article will talk about words. Next week we’ll focus on actions.
“I know how you feel” can be a very hurtful phrase unless you have had the EXACT same experience. If you lost your mother, you can’t know how it feels to lose a sister. Unless you have lost a child, don’t say this to a grieving parent. You might say, “I can only imagine what this is like for you”, or “You must be devastated”. Acknowledge their pain, that’s very important. Do not claim to know their personal hell.
“I’m so sorry for your loss” is best. Phrases often become cliché for a reason – they’re effective.
If you have been in a similar situation, even if you are a stranger, talking to them about how you survived is a tremendous gift. You may also be surprised to find it a healing experience for yourself as well. Go for it. You are THE ONLY person who can say, “I know how you feel” and have it be received well. Because the mourner really wants to hear what you have to say, plan a visit when they’re not super busy, and you have time to talk.
“God wanted your loved one in heaven”. Ouch. Not only are you claiming to know the mind of God, you are completely dismissing the feelings of the grieved. They want their loved one back, and you have just told them it’s wrong and selfish. This phrase is not recommended at all. “God bless you” is appropriate.
“Well, we all have to go sometime”. If you are related, and the mourners know you often say the wrong things, fine. Otherwise, expect to be dismissed before coffee is served, if not ushered out of the house by a burly family member. This is cold and mean.
“At least now they’re not suffering”. Be careful with this one, and avoid it. If the mourner says it, agree that this is, indeed, a comfort. If you bring it up, it may be received totally the wrong way, and be very hurtful. It may be taken as an implication that not enough was done for the deceased, or that the pain wasn’t recognized. Maybe you’re suggesting that the mourners were the source of the problem?
Let’s review: “I’m so sorry for your loss”.
If you knew the deceased, by all means talk about the good times, your favorite story, and your memories. Bring pictures you have. Better yet, make copies of those pictures, and leave them for the family. Having any connection with their loved one at this point is a great comfort. Knowing you might be missing them, too, forges a connection much needed.
Honor the relationship the mourner had with the deceased. “You two were so close” or “It was beautiful to see the two of you together” or “The love you two shared was an inspiration to me” or “We sure shared a lot of laughter and tears when we were all together”.
If you are a friend, offer emotional support, but don’t be vague. “Call me if you need me” is non-committal and likely won’t go anywhere. “I’ll call Saturday and see if you want to go to church” or “I’ll stop by Tuesday to see how you’re doing” gives the mourner something to hang on to. Be advised, you darn well better keep your word!
We can heal the planet, one act of kindness at a time.