“Grieving, I hate to say goodbye
Dust and ash forever, yeah…
Though I know we must be parted
As sure as stars are in the sky…
I’m gonna see when it comes to glory
And I’ll see you, I’ll see you on the other side…
Yes I’ll see you, I’ll see you on the other side.” ~ Ozzy Osbourne, “See You On The Other Side”
I know most people truly do mean well. I know they have only the utmost good intentions at heart. I also know that sometimes, others simply don’t know what to say to a bereaved person. I’ve been on the other side of this experience…so believe me, I get it.
That said, if one more person attempts to console me by gently reminding me that Tom “is in a better place,” they just might find themselves joining him there quicker than they’d hoped…
I don’t want to come across as ungrateful toward folks who are merely trying to be comforting. I very much appreciate the condolences and sympathy shown by so many people who care about what has happened and want to say something, anything, to try and ease the pain. I’m eternally grateful for the friends and family who only want to help me feel better.
However, regardless of your personal religious or spiritual beliefs, whether or not you believe in a heaven or a hell or a God, an afterlife of any kind, or even if you believe that after death, we cease to exist at all, please enlighten me on this: in what way is Tom in a “better place”?
I seriously doubt that had Tom been given an option between being able to live his life for many more years with his daughter, his stepchildren, his family, and his friends or going to this “better place,” that he would’ve chosen the latter. He was just 36 years old when his time was suddenly up, with absolutely no warning. There was so much more left for him to do in this world. His daughter is barely eight years old and because he’s gone onto this proverbial “better place,” he won’t be here to see her become a teenager, graduate from high school, walk her down the aisle on her wedding day, or to one day see her become a wife and mother with a family of her own. He never got to hold his brother’s firstborn child, a beautiful baby girl named Kylie Paige, because he went to this “better place” just sixteen days before her arrival into this world. She’ll only know him through photos and stories as her Uncle Tommy who died just weeks before she was born. He won’t see his niece Edie grow into young womanhood. And he won’t be here to walk his stepdaughter down the aisle on her wedding day either, which he had planned to do because her own father passed away when she was just nine years old. He won’t see either of his stepsons’ wedding days…or their future wives and children.
“’cause now you’ve got to fly, fly high, fly to the angels
Heaven awaits your heart
And flowers bloom in your name…
Ohhh you’ve got to fly, fly high
Fly to the angels
All the stars in the night shine in your name.”
~ Slaughter, “Fly To The Angels”
I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that I absolutely believe in an afterlife; I believe the spirit lives on, as the spirit — or soul — is made of pure energy and it is a scientific fact that energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed. If your car breaks down while you’re in it, what do you do? You get out of the car. You are in your car, but at the same time, you are not your car, the same way “you” are not your body. Your body breaks down, your spirit leaves it. So while I am certain that Tom’s spirit lives on, and in fact, is definitely still around (specific examples of which I’ll touch on at another time), and what was once his physical body– the shell which houses the soul — is now reduced to ashes which rest in a beautiful urn, regardless of any of that, there is no way I can passively sit back and accept the explanation that he’s now in a “better place,” whatever or wherever that might be. I fail to see how this “better place” people so often speak of is…well, better.
So without further ado, here are some suggestions for what to say to the bereaved…and perhaps more importantly, what not to say:
- “He/she is in a better place.” Was there any question whatsoever this would be my first suggestion of what not to say? This is not — I repeat, not — a comforting statement. A grief-stricken loved one does not want to hear this. To the bereaved, the “better place” for their departed loved one is right here, alive and well in the physical realm. Not to mention the phrase itself is such an overused cliche that it’s all but lost its meaning over time.
- “Everything happens for a reason.” The hell you say. But whatever the elusive reason may be that has ripped our loved one away from us matters not, because the fact remains that they are still gone and no big-picture, grand-scheme-of-things reason is going to make our loss any less painful…even if we’re lucky enough to one day discover what that reason is, and most of us probably never will. A similar statement to avoid is “It’s God’s will, even if we don’t understand His reasons for it.” *rolls eyes* Unless you are the Lord Almighty incarnate, please refrain from using that line in a misguided attempt at consoling someone.
- “God/the Universe never gives us more than we can handle.” Wanna bet? If that were true, there would be no such thing as suicide. Far too often, many people have way more than their fair share of painful events and tragic losses thrust upon them.
- “I know how you feel.” Oh, really now? Do you? Unless you have been through the exact same experience or loss yourself, you have no way to even begin to imagine how we are feeling or what we are going through.
- Saying nothing at all; not bringing up the loss. Huge mistake. It’s almost better to say the wrong thing than to say nothing and avoid the topic altogether. When you don’t acknowledge the person’s loss, your silence on the matter screams that you don’t care about them or what they’re going through…even if the only reason you aren’t bringing it up is out of fear of upsetting or reminding the grieving person of their loss or potentially causing yourself to feel uncomfortable (which is selfish). You will not — I repeat, will not — upset someone by bringing up the topic of their lost loved one. You aren’t “reminding” them of anything. Trust me, they are already thinking about it. This actually happened to me. I received an instant message from a “friend” the same day Tom was killed who periodically hits me up for no other reason than to pimp her “fabulous home business opportunity” on me. I replied back to her that I was sorry, but I couldn’t even think about that right now “because Tom was killed last night.” Her reply? Absolute silence. Nothing. Not even a “k.” In all fairness, maybe she just didn’t know how to respond. But I’ve been friends with this woman for nine years…and she couldn’t even take 30 seconds to muster an “I’m sorry” or “what happened?” In any event, I no longer consider her my friend. She hasn’t attempted to contact me since that day. Not to mention the plentiful opportunities she had to respond to any one of my Facebook statuses about Tom’s death to which numerous other people replied with simple yet meaningful comments such as “I’m sorry for your loss.” She couldn’t even get a clue about what to say from reading their replies? Yeah. She’s no friend. It’s not like I’m a sympathy whore, fishing for condolences. But common courtesy dictates some kind of response…especially from a friend.
- “I don’t know what to say.” This is perfect for when words escape you. It’s really okay to admit that you can’t imagine how they are feeling and that you simply don’t know what to say. Other suggestions along these lines would be asking them specifically what you can do to help, even if it’s offering your shoulder to cry on or someone to talk to. Most people want to talk about their lost loved one. Follow their lead. Let them talk, let them cry, let them be angry. Don’t offer advice unless you’re asked. Just shut up and listen to them without throwing in your own opinions or regaling them with your own experience; it’s not about you right now; this is their story. It’s amazing how incredibly helpful that can be for someone going through the grieving process. Shut up, be there, and just listen. Ask if they need help with anything — taking care of the kids if they have any, preparing and/or bringing meals to the house, running errands, making phone calls, sorting through paperwork, anything…even the seemingly most trivial acts of kindness can make a world of difference because it’s one less thing they have to worry about during an already emotionally chaotic time.
- Don’t hit on the widow(er). Really. I have a friend whom I’ve known since I was thirteen years old. We connected again on Facebook about three years ago. He knew I was in a relationship and had previously expressed disappointment at that fact… and evidently, upon reading my statuses about Tom’s death, incorrectly assumed I was grieving the loss of my current husband. About four days after Tom’s death, he sent me a private message gently reminding me that if I needed a shoulder to cry on, he would be happy to meet me somewhere and suggested that perhaps we could “go out to the lake and just talk.” I thanked him but declined his offer, telling him I didn’t think my man – who has been wonderfully supportive – would appreciate that very much. This guy’s response? “No. You don’t have to be alone. He would want you to be happy. It’s okay to be with someone again.” That’s when it hit me: he thinks Tom was my current husband! I was nauseated and beyond offended when I realized his motivations. I responded to him, informing him that Tom was my ex-husband, my current man was very much alive and well, thank you very much, and “you are seriously coming onto me four days after you thought I was widowed? WTF is wrong with you??” He didn’t respond for a long time but finally replied that he hadn’t been hitting on me, and lamented the fact that he’s “always misunderstood.” I call bullshit…and told him so, pointing out that “he would want you to be happy” and “it’s okay to be with someone again” didn’t seem to allude to my living and breathing current man. Not only that, but I also reminded him that he didn’t even know Tom, let alone my current man, Mike, so who was he to presume “he would want [me] to be happy”? I never heard another peep out of him. And good riddance. Opportunistic bastard.
- Don’t say “Let me know if you need anything.” Although you might really mean it, unfortunately this sounds trite and scripted, the same way it sounds when the cashier at your supermarket says “have a nice day.” More often than not, this is an empty sentiment, or at least sounds like one, that is ridiculously overused to the point that it is all but meaningless, regardless of how good your intentions are, and chances are, they’re not going to actually get a hold of you later and let you know if there’s something you can do. Not even to mention that it just goes without saying that they are going to need help with something. Don’t throw out a generic offer. Do say “Tell me what I can do to help you; what do you need me to do for you?” Or if they specifically mention things they are going to have to deal with or face, say “I can do that for you; how do you want me to handle that?” This is much more sincere and will prompt them to actually think about what they need help with and also provides them an opportunity to take you up on your generous offer.
- “Don’t worry, you’ll meet someone and get married again/have another child someday.” I find it more than a little disturbing that this, which by the way, is just about the worst thing you can possibly say to someone who has lost a spouse or child, even has to be mentioned. Do you really think someone who has just been widowed or experienced the death of a child cares even a little bit about finding a new spouse or having another child right now, you well-intentioned idiot? Would you? A grieving parent or spouse is not looking to replace their child or their husband/wife. This statement implies those treasured lost loved ones are expendable and replaceable. Never say this, or anything remotely similar. Please. If you do say something like this to a grieving spouse or parent, I hope they punch you in the throat. Seriously.
- Everyone grieves differently; respect that and don’t judge them for it. And by differently, I mean for different lengths of time and to varying degrees. About two weeks after Tom’s death, I was overcome one evening by a wave of intense grief. Through tears, I posted a Facebook status stating I couldn’t believe this was really happening. A friend commented, “Why are you having such a hard time accepting this?” I felt as though he was implying that because Tom was my ex-husband, I should’ve long ago dried my eyes and carried on with the rest of my life…two weeks later. I felt like he was minimizing what had happened and that my grief wasn’t valid; or at least, not valid anymore, as though a bereavement period has an expiration date or deadline by which one should stop feeling sadness about the loss. I’m not saying that is what he meant, but that is certainly how his comment came across. Instead of offering condolences, he evidently felt the need to analyze my grief instead of simply respecting my feelings about the loss. Everyone is different. The same person can grieve very differently for different deaths. No two grieving experiences are alike…even for the same individual.
- Think twice before you speak; or even three times if you have to. And when in doubt, don’t say it. My first husband, who was also the father of my three children and an active, always previously healthy Sagittarian, passed away from cancer in 2001 at the age of 33. When Tom, who was my second husband, was killed, a longtime close friend called me to express her condolences. She obviously cared about what had happened and having known Tom through me, she was concerned and also in shock about his death. She then blurted out with jaw-dropping insensitivity, “Wow; well, it’s a good thing you and Mike [my current Cancer cusp man] never got married or he’d probably be next.” Seriously? I was literally speechless when I heard those words (which is very unusual for a mouthy Aries such as myself). What has to transpire in someone’s brain to convince them that saying something like that is actually a good idea? (For the record, Mike let her have it. “Way to console your friend, you idiot,” he angrily texted her. She honestly didn’t understand what she had said that upset me. To her credit, when he spelled it out for her, she immediately texted an apology to me. But still…I can’t even begin to fathom how it entered her mind in the first place to think that, let alone actually speak it, as if it was some sort of backhanded implication that I’m a jinxed black widow and marrying me would be tantamount to a death sentence for any man.)
- Check on the grieving person from time to time. Often, after the funeral or memorial service is over and the flowers have wilted, a bereaved person’s support network of friends and extended family begins to dwindle and the person is ultimately left alone to grieve. I’m not suggesting that you call them every hour on the hour to check on their well-being. What I am saying is just shoot them a quick text or phone call every week or so just to let them know you’re thinking of them or ask them how they’re doing. This lets them know you care and demonstrates your continued support during this difficult time and trust me, it makes a huge difference for them to know they’re in your thoughts and/or prayers.
Again, I’d like to reiterate that we the bereaved do understand you have only the best intentions, even if you say all the wrong things in your attempt to console us. There is nothing you can say that will ever make the pain go away, but that doesn’t mean you should stay silent. If you don’t know what to say, just tell them you don’t know what to say, but you’re thinking of them and are sorry for their loss. The important thing here is, don’t just say nothing.
“Would you hold my hand
If I saw you in heaven?
Would you help me stand
If I saw you in heaven?
I’ll find my way
Through night and day
‘Cause I know I just can’t stay
Here in heaven.”
~ Eric Clapton, “Tears In Heaven”