When someone close to a friend or family member dies, we often wonder: What can I possibly say? We wrestle with our sadness and discomfort. Sometimes we manage to send a message fairly quickly but don’t know how to continue the conversation. Other times it takes us a longer time to craft a letter. Maybe several months go by and we realize we haven’t gotten in touch.
After my brother died, letters, cards, emails, Facebook messages, and texts began to arrive from family and friends all over the country and the world. I heard from neighbors we grew up with, work colleagues of Frank’s, people I see all the time, people I haven’t seen in decades, friends of my grandparents, people who’ve never met Frank but know me, people who’ve never met me but know Frank. Receiving these messages felt like having spotters all around a trampoline, a circle of people holding palms up to support me as I jumped, fell, stumbled to my feet, and jumped again. It helped keep me going then, and still does now.
Some people I know have not gotten in touch with me, and sometimes I wonder why. Perhaps online messages strayed in cyberspace or cards got lost in the mail, or perhaps these few have kept their distance for particular reasons. Not long ago, one such person met up with a mutual friend and remarked on having not contacted me about Frank. When my friend asked why, this person said something to the effect of, “I didn’t think I had anything helpful to say.”
That got me thinking. What qualifies as “helpful to say” to a grieving person?
Depends on how you define the word helpful.
Does helpful mean the comment actually improves the situation? If so, something “helpful to say” would have to either bring my brother back to life or fill up the hole left by his death – both impossible tasks. In this sense, then, there is truly nothing helpful to say. Feeling no purpose in our words, we may hesitate to say anything.
I do not judge this person or anyone else who has not contacted me. Although I don’t know their reasons, I understand the challenge. It can be incredibly difficult to figure out what to say to someone coping with loss, no matter who has died or how the death occurred. Navigating my own loss doesn’t seem to have made it easier. Recently I sent letters and books to two children of friends of mine, surviving siblings in a family whose oldest child was killed last summer. I twisted around over what to say to them as much I ever have. All three of us have lost a brother, but I cannot assume anything about their feelings and needs. Every loss is unique, as is every griever, as is every step of the grief journey.
Even if my loss hasn’t magically removed the challenge of supporting others in their grief, it has provided lessons that have changed me. I understand more about what it means to grieve, and from what people have said and written to me, I have more ideas to draw on. Perhaps, too, I feel more determined to communicate than ever before, because I know what the messages I’ve received have done for me.
Let’s reimagine helpful. If “helpful things to say” aim to provide relief or support rather than fixing the unfixable, many more options appear. Simple statements like “I’m here,” or “I’m sorry,” or “I am thinking of you,” or just “I don’t know what to say” could make a difference to someone. For me, almost any communication is better than none. Even when a person says something that doesn’t sit well with me, I can often find comfort if I focus on the intention. Underneath the words lies a message of love that says, “You are on my mind. I acknowledge your loss and pain. I honor you in my striving to say anything at all.”
Almost everyone finds it hard to figure out what to say, even those coping with grief themselves. So forgive yourself for whatever struggle you encounter, set aside self-judgment about how long you’ve waited, and see what you can manage. Perhaps you could send a couple of sentences over e-mail. Or a few words in a text. Or a printed condolence card on which you simply sign your name. True, your message might not sound like you intend it to or have the effect you want. Yes, if a lot of time has passed by it might dredge up difficult emotions and set the stage for a tough conversation. But it also could help.
When I hear from people, I feel a little less alone. No matter when it comes in, each communication adds to the circle of spotters supporting me as best they can. I’m still working to maintain my footing on this trampoline, so I’m here to tell you: Every message helps.