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How To Talk To A Grieving Person

Illustration for article titled How To Talk To A Grieving Person

In the weeks and months after my father died, “How are you?” became my least favorite question. It was always benign and well-intentioned, but it also inevitably reminded me that I felt like shit. I’d rather have given a gruesome blow-by-blow account of how my father died than talk about how I felt. But talking—or, more importantly, finding someone who will listen—is what grieving people so desperately need.


There is a gulf between mourners and the rest of the world. We want to talk, but we don’t want to make people uncomfortable. We can tell they want to say something, but they don’t know how. But how the hell do you talk to a grieving person? It can be baffling, especially when a simple “Hey, what’s up?” can set someone off.

But you have to start somewhere. “I think it’s important for people who haven’t lost someone to say, ‘I have no idea what you’re going through, but I’m here to listen,’” my friend Tessa told me of her own experience mourning her father. “And for people that have been through it, share that. It makes us feel less alone, I think.”

True, you might say the wrong thing! It’s okay, though. People said some fucked-up things to me right after my dad died, but for the most part, I don’t remember the specifics. And most of the time, those terrible things were said with good intentions. What’s worse than that is insincerity; what’s worse that that is inaction.

When you don’t say anything, it’s perhaps borne out of a fear of offending, causing more strife, or simply imposing upon someone. But that’s all in your head: The truth is, there’s nothing you can say to someone who’s just buried someone close to them that will make it feel worse.

Of course, it might make you feel worse. “I think a big reason people are uncomfortable with grieving people is that they’ve never experienced it themselves, and perhaps some of them don’t want to have to deal with it yet,” says my friend Kate, who lost her own father five years ago. “But it is something that will happen to all of us, and the sooner you can get a handle on that feeling and the things that help cope with it, the better-equipped you’ll be for life.”

So put aside your fear of the unknown and speak up. Everyone’s grief is so different, but in conversations with both friends and experts, certain things kept coming up.


Keep It Simple

And no need to overdo it. “You can start out by saying, ‘I am here for you, however you need,” says Shreya Mandal, a therapist who specializes in grief and lost her own father three years ago. “It should be as simple as that. You don’t have to come up with something flowery ... I think in these situations, simplicity speaks volumes. When you don’t know where someone is in their grief and their mourning, just to say, ‘I’m here for you if you need me, however you need me,’ is a huge statement. Meeting the grieving person where they’re at versus making the grieving person have to do all the work.”


Be Honest

Be real: Death sucks! Sometimes, you can actually just say that! “I remember this woman coming up to our cousin Ester at our Uncle Paul’s shiva, six weeks earlier, a few days before my dad’s diagnosis,” says my friend Jeff, who lost his father six years ago. “This woman said, ‘This sucks. Sorry, someone had to say it.’ And it was really refreshing! Grieving can be so performative: Everyone wants to talk to you, but no one has anything to say. This cut through the bullshit: yes. This sucks. Glad some lady said it.”


Forget The Clichés

Forget everything you think you’re supposed to say. My father was religious, and while I could appreciate the intent behind something like, “I’m praying for you,” it didn’t really have the desired effect. Speak from the heart.


Tessa told me she hated hearing “all the clichés: ‘Time heals all wounds,’ ‘you’ll get through this,’ and the worst of them all, ‘God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.’ Most of these came from people who’d never experienced loss before, and in hindsight, I can see that they were simply trying to find the right thing to say—no small challenge. But at the time, it made me furious. Who were they to tell me time would heal? What if I didn’t want to heal? What the hell did they know?”

True, “One day at a time” became a mantra for me personally. But you have to come around to that kind of thing on your own.


Don’t Walk On Eggshells

Grieving people do not want to be coddled. After my father died, I spent a month back home in Texas tying up a spool of loose ends and helping keep my mother together. I felt like one of those Madame Alexander dolls, but didn’t want to be placed in a glass case and handled with gloves, so to speak.


My friend Windsar, whose mother died four years ago after a five-year battle with cancer, found comfort in the friends who didn’t treat her that way, either. “I didn’t want to be treated like something fragile or breakable, even though that’s how I felt for so long afterward,” she told me. “I loved that my closest friends didn’t treat me any differently than they normally did. They still expected me to be crude and sarcastic like I always am, called me out on my shit, and joked around with me. They didn’t walk on eggshells around me like so many people did, which just made me feel worse. My friends provided me with a sense of normalcy among all the jarring changes that came with such a loss.”

The night before I returned to work after my dad died, a friend told me he was going to put gum in my hair in the middle of the office so people knew I was alright. I laughed. He got it. It doesn’t take much.


Tell Stories

Here’s the thing: I want to talk about my dad. He was a funny guy who loved me dearly, and I loved him back. Once it gets cold enough for people to start wearing beanies, I think about the time he came to New York at Christmas and didn’t bring a winter hat, because he thought beanies were “girly,” but spent the week walking around wearing a Christmas elf hat instead. I think about that a lot around the holidays, and I have other little flashes of old memories about two dozen times a day.


“I loved hearing other people tell stories about Mama, and still do to this day,” Windsar told me. “Hearing about how much she loved her family or how good of a friend she was, or hearing a story about something quirky she did that was just ‘so Darla’ comforted me and often made me laugh—something I truly felt I might never be able to do again.”

When you lose someone, it rips open a void. Something is missing. But sometimes, it’s comforting to be reminded that the void is there, because it’s a reminder that you are missing someone great. Talking about them is part of that. It keeps them with you.


Be Present

Make yourself available. Check in often. Make plans with that person. I’ve always been a planner, but after my dad died, that part of me took a hiatus. I had a friend who recognized that very quickly, and began purposefully and dutifully taking the lead in making plans with me. I saw that, and it helped me keep going.


“More than anything else, the people who surrounded me in the days, weeks, and years after my mom’s passing are imprinted on my mind like ink,” says my friend Sadie, whose mother died of cancer when we were seniors in college. “I remember the first faces that barged through my front door that very first morning I woke up after she died. I remember they took me to get coffee, and they were just there.”

Know That There’s No Timeline

Judaism has the best illustration of a formal mourning period. Shneim asar chodesh is the 12-month interval following the death of a parent where the child avoids celebrations and parties, and the meaning is clear: After those first 365 days, you stop counting days. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re done mourning. “Grief is slow moving and has no rules,” Jenna says. “There’s no set expiration date, no pre-determined time when everything goes back to normal. For many people, it never does.”


There’s no such thing as a time when everything should be okay, no script, no right or wrong way to grieve. People do weird shit. I haven’t been able to delete my dad’s phone number from my favorites; I also saved a pair of his leather loafers. One day I’ll delete the number and give the loafers to Goodwill. But I’m not ready to let those things go yet. It’s a process.

If Nothing Else, Just Say You’re Sorry

It means more than you know.

Oh, and please stop asking me if I’ve read The Year Of Magical Thinking. I’ll get to it once I feel like I’m not living it.


Illustration by Tara Jacoby