“We’re so phobic about aging and dying,” wrote Dr. Joe Nowinski, supervising psychologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center, “it creates anxiety and discomfort.”
Confronted with a grieving person, we tend to withdraw into an awkward, tongue tied silence. We tell ourselves that since we don’t know what to say, we’re better off not saying anything. We fear we’ll make matters worse. According to grief experts, that’s a mistake.
Saying something, even if it’s “I don’t know what to say,” is better than saying nothing at all. “The aim is not to say the right thing,” writes Mark Vernon in his book, What Not to Say: “it’s just to say something so the person you are with can talk. Don’t speak too much. Say something simple and then be prepared to listen.”
Here are a few suggestions of words which may hurt and words which may help:
1. Instead of saying, “I know how you feel,” try, “I can’t imagine what you are going through.”
Even if you’ve experienced numerous losses in your life, you cannot know for certain how someone else feels. Grief varies from person to person.
2. Instead of saying, “he’s in a better place,” try “I’m sorry for your loss.”
You might not be familiar with your friend’s beliefs regarding an afterlife. Experts suggest that we avoid language that attempts to make someone feel better; it is better to simply acknowledge their pain.
3. Instead of saying, “he fought the good fight,” try talking about how the person lived or coped with his illness.
Dr. Nowinski suggests that we drop “fight” or “battle” when discussing illnesses, especially cancer. It suggests that when a person dies it’s because she or he has surrendered or demonstrated a weak will.
4. Instead of saying, “it will get better over time,” try and relate to how the person is feeling in the present with “it must be so difficult for you right now.”
5. Instead of saying, “she lived a full life,” try, “what did you like most about her?”
Nancy Berns, author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us states that even if your friend lost her 109 year old grandmother, the pain still cuts deep and needs to be validated. Use the person’s name. Often we avoid doing so but saying the name of the deceased reinforces the message that he or she will not be forgotten.
6. Lastly, don’t say, “I can relate. Did I tell you about my bad back?”
Okay, odds are you would not do that. Our anxiety and discomfort around death can cause us to say the inappropriate things. Remember, it’s not about you.
Instead of worrying about the exact words to say when someone dies, keep this in mind: it’s enough to let someone know you care and that you are willing to listen. Tell them you are sorry and then let them take it from there. Listen more than you talk and you will not go wrong.
-Chaplain Scott Barron