HOW TO TALK TO YOUR SAD FRIEND: A TUTORIAL
A common thread in the grieving process is that most of the people around you have absolutely no idea what to say. And that’s okay.
I think, especially in American culture, that we’re not really taught how to grieve. The words we use to discuss it are soft euphemisms; people don’t die, they “pass,” a body is not a body but “remains,” people aren’t gone, but instead, “in a better place.”
So it’s no surprise that when you’re grieving, you get a lot of people who don’t know what to say, some who try and say the right things, some who try and say the wrong things, and some who just say nothing at all.
Here are some things I’ve noticed:
People like to tell you how strong you are. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but I will say it still feels odd, after all these years, and I’m never entirely sure how to respond to it. The truth is, I look strong to most people because most people don’t see me at my worst. The grieving are trained to hold it together in public, even if what’s going on in our heads is the shit of real-life nightmares. Mostly though, I don’t really think of myself as strong. Just as a person who has chosen to endure the bullshit life’s thrown at her instead of throwing in the towel. Maybe that’s strong. Or maybe that’s just life. I’ll let you know if I figure it out.
People like comparing your totally-abnormal loss with the loss of their grandmothers and pets. For the love of God, don’t do this shit. I’m sure you loved Spot, and I’m sure your grandmother was a lovely woman, but I’m just gonna put this out there: dogs and grandmas and goldfish are supposed to die. It’s called nature. If the bereaved has lost someone far too young, whether it be a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a friend, or a child, just don’t go there. Because it just ain’t the same.
People will do shit that’s just plain weird. One person gave me a sympathy card with a $20 bill in it at my mom’s funeral, as if to say, “Sorry, your mom lost the game of Life, here’s a consolation prize.” Can someone explain this one to me? I’m honestly curious, as I’ve been to a few funerals now, but never received cash prizes for any of them. I’m not sure if this is wrong or right, really. Maybe I’ve been going to the wrong funerals.
People will offer to help. This seems good right? And most grieving people probably won’t take you up on it, but in the chance they do and you didn’t really want to help, you are doing more harm than good. The better way to approach this: identify something that the person is clearly having a difficult time with and offer to help with that. The people who helped me re-home my mother’s dogs and sorted through all of her mail are seriously heroes to me, and their offers to do exactly those things were welcome and helpful in ways that they will never fully understand.
People who are into God really like to talk about God. While I’m not religious, I have no problem with people being so. Until you tell me “she’s in a better place.” Or “it’s all part of God’s plan.” Or “things happen for a reason.” Just, no. This stuff is hard to hear even when you do believe, and it’s so much worse when you don’t. Don’t try to rationalize the awful things in life away with platitudes. Just let people feel awful about it for a little while, as they have every right to do.
People will try to fix you. This one? This is the worst. Seriously. Never tell a grieving person what they “should” do or how they “should” act. Don’t tell them they need therapy. Don’t tell them that they’re grieving the wrong way, even if they’re laughing hysterically at their own mother’s funeral (yes, I did exactly that). It’s one thing for my doctor to give me a name of a therapist. That empowers me to make a decision if and when I’m ready. It’s entirely another for a drinking buddy to tell me I “need to talk to someone” over their fifth beer. That sort of stuff comes across as a judgment on what is, generally speaking, a messy, ugly, but natural grieving process. And if you don’t believe me? There are studies that show that giving advice to the grieving can actually be detrimental to their process. We know, it’s well-meaning, but it backfires. The lesson: we’re all special snowflakes and we all deal with our crazy in our own special ways.
So now you’re probably sitting there asking, “what the hell can I say?” Here’s my unprofessional opinion:
Say “I love you.” “I’m sorry.” “Wanna grab some coffee/a movie/a drink/ten drinks?” “Hi.” “Thinking about you.” Whatever. I have a family friend who texts me every few days to tell me about the weather or a concert she went to. It’s awesome. It shows that she’s thinking about me. The big secret of all of this is that a person who’s going through some shit really just wants to be reminded that she’s not totally alone in the world, and that people give a damn about her continued existence. And honestly, even if you do say one of the “wrong” things, 99.9% of the time it’s forgiven because we know how entirely awkward the conversation around grieving is, and we’re appreciative that you’re trying in the first place. Hell, I wrote all of this, not to scorn or pass judgment on anyone who’s said the wrong thing, but in the hope of helping someone who wants to know what to say. Honestly, I still fuck up when I talk to the bereaved, because as many times as I’ve been through it all myself, it’s still so goddamn hard when you’re looking a person in the eyes, knowing that nothing you say is gonna make that hurt go away.
But I will tell you, if there’s one thing that really, truly is the wrong thing to say, it’s nothing at all. So seriously, even if you say some dumb shit about your dead parrot or how the bereaved should probably commit themselves immediately? At least you tried. And it’s appreciated. Even if we roll our eyes a little when you’re not looking.
Just, seriously, don’t say nothing.