The things people say…

“What DO you say to someone who has just lost a loved one?”

This week I had the pleasure of visiting another book club, which consistently yield excellent conversation. Again questions like this came up in conversation with some of the members as well as laments at what people have said to them in times of loss and grief.

“I just don’t know what to say?”

Of course you don’t. That’s because we think what we say is meant to make things better somehow. We say things – we do things – to fix things. We love (or simply like) the person who has experienced a great loss and want to say something that will lighten the burden of grief. That’s because generally we have good hearts and we want to help.

Truthfully this impulse to “fix” often comes from a place of discomfort. It takes discipline to sit in the presence of someone in pain because it requires us to be honest about life: we will all suffer loss and grief, and we will all be in pain. But pain…well…hurts. And we don’t like to hurt, even secondarily or by association. To sit in someone else’s grief is to be willing to shoulder some of that pain. That takes strength and stillness.

Instead, we want to fix it. We don’t want them to feel pain and we don’t want to feel their pain ourselves. We lie to ourselves and think maybe we’ll have the magic words to take it away, thus helping to move them to the next stage in their grief journey and relieving us of our undesired feelings of helplessness.

But grief doesn’t work like that. We can’t spare them from the ripped open sore in their heart left by the loss of someone or something they love. If someone has fallen and their bone is protruding from their leg, we don’t expect some hastily spoken words to close the wound, stitch together the bone, and allow them to stand up and immediately run again. Why do we think a few words sprinkled on grief will cure it either?

We rush to say something to fill the void and to avoid some of the pain, and the words we say have impact, just often not in the way we intend them. As I listen to people speak about their experiences with grief, occasionally a participant will share how someone managed to say good words at a good time. I won’t say “right words” or “right time,” but words that helped in some way. More often than not, however, people tell how well intended words actually caused pain or even trauma.

We don’t mean to cause more pain and suffering. The words we say come from a good place. We repeat phrases we’ve heard and assume that’s what people say in times of loss and, therefore, they must be helpful since people say them. We want to help. We want to offer something that will bring an ease to the pain and we genuinely repeat some of these phrases in an effort to help out of the goodness of our hearts. I do not fault anyone for thinking they’re helping when they say such things. People have good hearts and want to help. I know this and say this whenever this topic comes up in my discussions with groups. No one intends to double-down on our grief by saying the wrong thing…at least, I certainly hope they dont.

With that in mind, here are common phrases I have heard people say or people have shared with me that they have heard in times of loss. I have reflected on what I believe generally people mean followed followed by how it can be heard or received instead:

“They’re in a better place.”

Intention: this world is difficult and full of challenges. To be alive is to struggle but in heaven, there are no more struggles. Heaven is better than earth because there people don’t have to toil or labor but can have eternal rest.

What might be heard: There is better than here, which includes being with you. Whatever and whoever is in that better place is better to be around than you. Being with you was difficult and they needed to not be with you anymore. This place sucks and they’re lucky to be rid of it and you.

First, as with many of these sayings, it presupposes agreement in a Protestant Christian theology that teaches heaven is what happens after we die, and it is a place of freedom. It also presupposes an agreement that life on earth is difficult and whatever comes next must be better.

Second, the person experiencing the loss probably loved their life with this person. It might be difficult for them to imagine anything better than what they shared with the person who is now gone. Or, they could have had a traumatic and turbulent relationship with this person and saying to them “they’re in a better place” may reinforce feelings of shame and guilt that the bereaved is experiencing. The grieving person might be struggling with feelings of failure in their relationship with the deceased, thinking they didn’t do enough and didn’t have enough time to find healing in the relationship. Saying the deceased is in a “better place” can exacerbate these feelings. The bereaved may hear, instead, how the dead person is lucky to be rid of them.

“There’s a reason for everything.” Similarly, “God has a plan, we just have to trust it.”

Intention: God is trustworthy and has a plan for this life. God only does good things, and it helps to remember that this plan is better than anything we might imagine. There is comfort in knowing even painful things are part of a positive plan for the world. There is a divine purpose for this death, and we should trust that purpose.

What might be heard: Stop being sad because all that happens in the world is part of something good. You aren’t being reasonable or rational in your grief and you simply need to trust that there’s a good explanation for this. You’re being unfaithful by being sad. If your belief was stronger, you wouldn’t be sad. Your loved one was sacrificed to some greater good that you are not allowed to understand, so you just have to trust that their death was worth whatever end goal there is.

Again, there are many presuppositions in this statement about religious belief. The theological assumption being made is that there is a God, that God is benevolent, and that God has every event in human history mapped out to lead to a certain future. To be a person of faith, therefore, means blindly trusting this benevolent deity to the point of sacrificing even our most basic emotions, and even our loved ones, to the greater good.

I am a Christian and I have to say that I despise the saying, “there’s a reason for everything,” just to be perfectly transparent. One day I’ll write a separate post about this phrase and what people mean versus what they say. For now, my gripe can be summarized in this: People say “reason” when they mean “purpose.” The “reason” might be that the person who is dead was driving too fast on a winding mountain road and lost control of their vehicle. That’s the reason. That is separate from saying there is a “purpose” intended by God for the dead to have made such a mistake.

Do you see the pain that can cause? First, it tells the person that God intentionally caused their loved one’s death by making them careless. Second, it means God’s purposes are more important than their pain. That doesn’t paint a particularly loving picture of God, “Sorry, human. I have a huge plan and your needs or pain are insignificant and meaningless to this plan, so it’s ok if I cause you tremendous grief if it means it gets me one step closer to realizing it. Sorry, your pain is worth my plan so stop whining.”

“God needed them more in heaven.”

Intention: This is similar to the previous one. The intention is that we can find comfort by trusting in God’s plan. God has a job for them in the afterlife and it can’t wait any longer. Just trust the process and trust in God and be comforted. They are now with a loving and caring God and being used for some grand purpose.

What might be heard: God’s needs are more important than yours. Stop being so selfish by putting yourself and your needs and desires above God’s. You are stupid and not capable of understand God’s plan; therefore, you need to let go of your grief. Accept your ignorance and let go of your pain. Again, God has a plan, this is a part of it, and you should have more faith. How could you be so egotistical to cling to the person you lost when obviously God’s need is greater than yours?

There are huge theological leaps being made by this statement. Not only does it assume a shared basis of belief but takes it a step further by making assumptions for the bereaved about what the after life must be like and the nature of God and God’s need. There is arrogance in painting an image of heaven and what is expected of souls once they go there. There is also arrogance in assuming the divine needs anything of us. This is inconsistent with a Christian theology that tends to emphasize the omnipotence of God.

“They are happy now.” Variations: “They are free now;” “They aren’t suffering any longer.”

Intention: Your loved one was in such pain and now they aren’t. None of us wants the people we love to suffer or hurt. It’s ok. They aren’t feeling any of that anymore. You can rest knowing they are at peace and no longer carry any of their pain or watch them suffer. What a wonderful thing to be released from all of that!

What might be heard: Being here was awful, including being with you. All they wanted was to escape because being here with you was like being in a cage. They felt trapped and now, without you, they are free. Your grief and pain are invalid because of the suffering you know they experienced in their last days. Your sorrow is inappropriate in this situation. You should stop being selfish by focusing on your sense of loss and be happy by focusing, instead, on an end to their pain. Grief is inappropriate in this instance.

To love someone is to be in pain when they’re in pain. No one wants to see someone they love suffering. But it is possible to be relieved by the end of their suffering but also heartbroken by our loss. Those are not contradictory things. Emotions are not mutually exclusive and it’s healthy to help each other hold the tension between happiness, relief, sadness, and grief. I can celebrate some of what a death produces while also heartbroken by the loss. It’s ok to feel both. Somehow we become absolutists with emotions and believe you can’t feel two different emotions at once. However, part of grief is both celebrating and mourning the lift that is lost.

They’re with (fill in the blank) now.

Intention: They have been missing a loved one who died before them, and they finally get to be reunited. We all know what it means to live without someone who has died and it’s nice to get to be with them again when we die and join them. It is reassuring to know we see our loved ones again when we die, so feel better that your loved one isn’t alone now. You don’t need to fear that they are afraid or alone.

What might be heard: You were a fine companion in this other person’s absence but now they can finally be back with the person they prefer over you
When it comes to things people say, this one actually comes close to helping sometimes, especially in instances when an elderly person dies, and their spouse or partner has preceded them. Children and grandchildren say this to each other sometimes and they can share a moment of imagining what the reunion might look like.

However, we should still take care when using this phrase. There are theological assumptions about what life after death is like as well as assumptions about the nature of the departed’s relationship with the previously departed. Families are good at hiding trauma and abuse. What might be a well-intended word of hope might actually cause fear and worry if the bereaved thinks their deceased loved one will be reunited with an abuser.
“It was expected,” or, “Weren’t they sick a long time?”

Intention: At least you had time to prepare and it wasn’t sudden. The person isn’t suffering anymore and knew their death was coming. They were ready and didn’t suffer as much emotional trauma as someone who dies suddenly. It was good you had time to prepare and say your “goodbyes.”

What might be heard: Why are you crying? It’s not like you didn’t know this was coming. You should have used the time you knew they were dying to be ready for this. Did you waste that time? It is stupid of you to be sad when you knew for a long time that this was going to happen. Don’t be so dramatic. You’ve had your time. Now it’s time to move on.

Long terminal illnesses often are referred to as “long goodbyes.” For some family members, this does mean that they feel relief when the loved one dies and feel they have had time to prepare themselves. However, even in these cases, death is still a loss. It’s one thing to know the day will come when you wake up one morning and they are gone. It is another thing to wake up that first morning and realize that is the day you will never see them again. Some caretakers are too busy tending to the dying that they feel they can’t pause for emotional processing. For others, they need to compartmentalize their emotions in order to give themselves fully to managing the dying’s immediate needs. Caretakers sometimes postpone all of their grief until the loved one dies, making the impact of the death just as severe as if it had been sudden.

“How can you be sad? They’re with the Lord!”

Do I really need to spell this one out? I don’t think so…

“You’re dealing well with the loss.”

Intention: You look well and strong. You are capable and able to shoulder this difficult thing. You are doing great and I see that and affirm it.

What might be heard: Thank you for hiding your grief from me so I don’t see your pain. Please continue to go home every night and cry in your pillow where no one else can see you. I need to be protected from your pain and applaud you for keeping your act together. You are living into our culture’s idea of acceptable behavior and that is more important than your actual emotions.

American culture places strict boundaries in which a person is allowed to grief. I’ll write more at a later time about our toxic relationship with death, dying, and grief. This is another theme that comes up almost every time I speak on this topic to a group or lead a retreat or workshop. For now, it is worth paying attention to the expectations we place on the grieving around acceptable and unacceptable visible expressions of grief. We also have tight timelines for how long someone “should” publicly express their pain.

Now that I’ve said all of this, a disclaimer: it is possible one of these things will bring comfort to someone you know. If they share the same beliefs as you, you know them very well and their history, and you have a close relationship, one of things might provide a balm (not a fix) to their pain. My point is that we need to be very intentional with our words and not rush to say something out of our desire to either make it better or escape sharing their pain.

“So, what DO I say?”

I’ve been asked this question and have asked this question so many times. When it comes to encountering someone else’s grief, we feel lost and helpless. We want to give something to our loved one that will help, but sometimes there’s nothing we can do. Which is part of the challenge. It isn’t for us to “do” anything. There are ways we can help by bringing a meal or taking our loved one to coffee or even doing their laundry or picking up their kids from school. But when it comes to their grief, there is nothing to be “done” about it.

Instead, I call to mind the wise advice from Nicholas Wolterstorff from his book, Lament for a Son. It is my favorite book about grief and I highly recommend it to everyone. He speaks from his own place of pain and loss, having had a son die in a skiing accident. He says to his observers that he doesn’t want them to say or do anything. Instead, he simply wants them to “come and sit on my mourning bench with me.” (I would love to give you a page reference and copyright information but my copy is on loan to yet another friend. Trust me. This is a must-read!).

One of the most powerful things we can do for someone in the throes of grief is let them know they are not alone, that they haven’t been abandoned to the pain. Walking through the mourning process takes time, the duration of which will depend on the individual. What is helpful is knowing that we aren’t left alone in that process, that someone else is willing to face the pain with us and isn’t afraid to be with us in our suffering.

When it comes to what to say, simplicity is often best, “I’m sorry.” I have said to people that I’m sorry and that grief is painful and difficult. When they say, “It’s ok. It’s not your fault,” I often reply with, “I know, but I can still be sorry that you are heartbroken” or “sorry that you’re going through this,” or “sorry that you’ve experienced such an important loss in your life.” It’s a way of saying, “I see you and I’m here.” When they say, “I’m ok,” it’s appropriate to accept their words and it’s also appropriate to say, “if you’re not, that’s ok too. Either way, I’m here.”

There are times when most everything I’ve written above will seem entirely wrong, too. The truth is that grief is messy. Loss hurts and is complicated. Grieving people sometimes shut down completely and other times are a swirling chaotic tangle of emotion. But it’s never a wrong time to affirm them however they are grieving and to let them know you are here and will be as long as they want you. Too often the bereaved are led to believe that there is a “right” way to behave, feel, act, mourn, breathe, cry, etc. It can be a balm to hear someone else say, “this is the way you are grieving. There are no rules, only what you need to make it through this. However that looks, that’s what’s ‘right’ for you.”

And don’t feel bad if you have used some of these sayings yourself and with regularity. I see you too. You have goodness in your heart and mean well. We all do. We grasp for something, anything, that might relieve the suffering of people we love and often we grab for that we’ve heard ourselves and what feels familiar. Just as the grieving person is doing the best they can in their mourning process, you’re doing your best to try to be present for them. There is forgiveness and grace in this world, especially for those who truly want only the best for those they love.

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