What NOT to Say to those Mourning
At one time or another, most of us have been in the position of providing sympathy, comfort and encouragement to someone who has experienced a loss. Unfortunately, not everyone offers support in a way that is sympathetic, comforting or encouraging (and in some cases, not even positive).
In the hopes that we can avoid being seen as insensitive or uncaring (or worse) and instead be thought of as the most comforting and helpful people ever, I am going to share a quick lesson in Loss Etiquette 101,
I am first breaking from convention by beginning an article with the bottom line. Generally speaking, starting an article this way is like trying to frost a cake that has not been baked — you just don’t do it that way. However, I also believe that the more urgent the message, the sooner it needs to be heard. So let’s start with:.
What you should never ever say or do in any loss situation ( regardless of the circumstances)
The no-doubt-about-it, number-one thing that you should never say to anyone who has or is going through bereavement is:
“I know how you feel” (also occasionally disguised as, “I know what you’re going through”)
A seemingly innocuous phrase used in an attempt to relate to the pain of another person, little does more damage to a person in need of sympathy than hearing, “I know how you feel” or “I know what you’re going through” from the people around them. This sentiment has the capacity to create very hard feelings, since no one knows how someone else feels — and to say otherwise is presumptuous at best and can be devastatingly hurtful at worst.
Why does this phrase needs to be immediately eliminated from sympathy lingo and blasted off of the planet (along with phrases such as “You should be ‘over it’ by now”)?
Reason #1: Leave the spotlight where it belongs. It is not your turn: I have spent many years in service to the bereaved. I have written about, been interviewed regarding and spoken about a wide variety of loss. The stories that I have heard and continue to hear are countless. Moreover, when it comes to losing loved ones, I too have far too much personal experience and insight.
Yet, not once have I ever looked at anyone who shares their story of loss (be it widow-related or otherwise) and responded with, “I know how you feel”.
Regardless of whatever news has been shared, whether or not you have been through the same or similar experience, the minute you say, “I know how you feel, because I…”, you are then going to fill in the “blank” with your own tale(s) of woe. There is then an automatic shift in the focus of the conversation and the person in need of sympathy is now being made to focus on your story, your feelings and how you were affected by your loss. The bereaved has just become the person consoling you and the emphasis is now misplaced.
It is not about you right now. The focus needs to remain on the person who has opened a conversation with terrible news and is looking to you for warmth and reassurance. They should not have to be in the position of consoling you. Leave the spotlight where it belongs… on the person in immediate need.
Reason #2: You really can’t compare apples to oranges (or one loss to another loss): Most of us have experienced at least one traumatic loss in our lives. While you may think that you are compassionately empathizing with someone by letting them know that you have had what you perceive to be a similar experience, what you may be unintentionally doing is trivializing their loss experience by making impossible comparisons. For example, imagine the horror of the widowed when they are told, “I know exactly how you feel because that’s how I felt when my [elderly aunt / friend of a friend / pet rabbit] died”.
While the loss of a relative, friend, beloved pet, etc., should absolutely be mourned, this is not only a violation of the “spotlight shifting” rule, you simply cannot compare loss experiences. For instance, you cannot compare the loss of a spouse with the loss of a parent (and I suffered both of those losses within four months of one another). The relationships are different; therefore, the loss perspectives are different. Can you imagine how one widow felt when she was told, “I know how you feel, my dog died last week”. Or when another was told, “Divorce is the same as death”.
Lesson: Comparison shopping is great. Comparison losses… not so much.
Reason #3: You are you. You are not them: Even though I have myself experienced widowhood, I will never look another widow in the eye and say, “I know how you feel”; even if that widow lost her husband to the same illness that claimed my late husband’s life. Why? I am not the other person who is sharing their loss experience. I am me.
Then again, we are each unique.
If we are each unique, it then follows that everything surrounding our loss experience(s) is also unique. Even if you have lost a loved one (or a job, a relationship or anything else) in what appears to be the exact same fashion as another, your circumstances, the people who surround you, your reactions and your relationships to who or what has been lost are all unique. How can anyone else know how you feel? How can you know how someone else feels during their time of loss, when their own loss experience is unique and individual to them?
Now, if someone asks you, “How did you feel when this happened to you” or “How did you handle this situation”, your input has been actively solicited and you can then respond with honest answers — how you felt, what you did to cope and so forth. However, to simply respond to terrible news with,”I know how you feel” is essentially sweeping the experiences and feelings of another under the carpet.
Horror Story Hall-of-Famers
Please permit me to share additional (and actual) examples of what not to say: **”I know how you feel”
There is a wonderful radio show host with whom I’ve had the privilege of working for many years, who was widowed after suddenly losing her husband. Not long afterward, she shared her tragic story with a male friend, who in turn shared that he knew exactly how she felt — because when John Lennon was murdered, he experienced tremendous grief.
While I too mourned Mr. Lennon’s senseless death with the rest of the world, I can also say that it is not the same as losing a spouse. This was not a great comparison to be making to someone who woke up in the morning with her beloved husband and went to sleep that night without him.
** “How old was he/she?”
I understand that the loss of someone at a younger age is considered the greater tragedy. However, at the end of the day… loss is loss. The fact that someone made it to an advanced age before they left this world does not provide comfort. I have never had one person say to me, “Well he/she’s gone, but because they were older, I’m OK with it”. Age has nothing to do with anything when you are the one left behind.
Need some more “WTF” examples? Read on:
**When one widow was telling another person how sad she was at the prospect of facing her first Christmas without her husband (which is always a huge challenge), the response she received was, “Well I am really sad I can’t buy my kids all they want for Christmas”.
**A widow was told, ?”I think divorce is as bad as being a widow, but at least you know where your husband is”.
**Another widow was told that “Everything happens for a reason” and that in her case, the reason her husband died was so that she could benefit financially. Further, it was a good thing that he died because he would have otherwise been a burden as a “vegetable” or quadriplegic.
**Upon her date learning that a widow’s late husband died of cancer, he expressed that at least her marriage had a “happy ending.”
** When a widow expressed how hard it was to raise her son on her own, she was told, “Well, it’s no picnic having a husband around either, they just make a big mess.”
**A widow was at a funeral home making her late husband’s arrangements, undoubtedly one of the most difficult and heart-wrenching parts of the bereavement process. When she asked the funeral home director if she could pay for the funeral with a credit card, she was told, “Yes and you’ll probably get points for a great vacation.”
Take a second glance on that last one: This was said by a funeral director.
I wish I could tell you that I was making up all of the aforementioned statements. The fact is that I am not that creative.
You may now be wondering what you should say instead to someone who has suffered a loss. It’s really quite simple.
**Express genuine sympathy: “I am so sorry; there really aren’t words at a time like this” or “I can’t even begin to imagine the pain you’re in”. You are now providing immediate comfort and warmth to someone whose world has been rocked, while also acknowledging that their grief is unique to them.
**Create an environment where talking is encouraged and your willingness to listen is at the ready: “You might not be ready to talk about it right now, but when you’re ready, I want to listen”. Most people who have experienced loss eventually really do want to talk about it with someone who actually cares. Create the environment that a bereaved needs. Don’t be one of those people who glosses over loss as soon as a funeral is over, for it is when everyone else has “gone home and gone on” that your compassion is needed the most.