My son, Phillip, took this photo when he visited me in New York, back in 2009.
Today marks the first anniversary of his death. Over the past year, I’ve discovered many things about grief and about how awkward giving and receiving condolences can be.
People offer condolences and I reply, “Thank you.” People ask how I’m doing and I answer, “Fine.” Then, there’s that hush because…where do you go from there? Do I just carry on and start talking about the weather? A class I’m taking? My grandkids? Oops, I’ll never have any grandkids. So many taboo subjects now. Touchy, delicate subjects where there used to be none.
People project their feelings onto me. They can’t imagine the horror of losing a child. They expect me to grieve like they would.
“How are you?”
“I’m doing okay.”
“How are you really?”
“I’m really doing okay.”
Awkward pause as if they don’t believe me. Then, uncomfortable silence.
“You’re so strong.”
I don’t understand. If getting up and putting one foot in front of the other for the past year is strong, then I’m strong. Was I supposed to crawl into bed, curl into a fetal position, and pull the covers over my head? I don’t think that’s what Phillip would have wanted me to do.
How does one handle grief? Do I keep myself so busy that I don’t have time to feel sad? Do I become a hermit and cry every day? Is it okay if I start to enjoy some of my favorite activities again? Or am I supposed to feel numb and empty for six months? A year? Forever?
The pain of losing someone you love never goes away. It gets magnified on every birthday, holiday, and anniversary. It’s a low-burning flame you carry inside you that flares up at odd times, like when you drive past the preschool your child once attended or the park where he went to his best friend’s birthday party. Grief’s a sneaky beast that stalks and then attacks you when you least expect it.
I’m grateful to my friends, who have been terrific at consoling me. I have felt supported, loved, and heard. It’s not easy to comfort the bereaved. Mercifully, many of us don’t have much practice at doing it.
From my own experience, here are some suggestions of things to do or not do when offering condolences:
- Be there.
- Bring food.
- Be quiet. Listen.
- Be strong. The grieving person is already trying to hold it together. If you need more sympathy than s/he does, you’re not helping. You are there to comfort, not the other way around.
- Be decisive, but not pushy. The grieving person has enough decisions to make without your adding more to their plate. Even simple questions like “Do you want chicken or pasta? Tonight or tomorrow?” can be too much. Decide that you’re bringing over chicken tonight and then do it. The grieving person won’t be that picky. They need to eat, but probably won’t be hungry anyway.
- Follow through. If you offer food, companionship, whatever, then show up.
- Check on them again. And again. A simple, “How’re you doing?” is fine and appreciated. Grief doesn’t immediately dissolve. Knowing that people are still thinking of them, caring about them, even from afar, is soothing and important.
- Some statements are not helpful. “He’s in a better place.” Probably, but it doesn’t help to hear this when his absence is so new and raw. “I have no words.” There are no words, but a simple “I’m so sorry” conveys your message.
- Don’t ask nosy questions. If the grieving person wants to tell you how their loved one died or give more details, they will. Asking a bunch of questions, such as “How did he die? Was he married? Did he have kids?”, etc. feels invasive and exhausting.
- Don’t blame the victim. We all make bad choices in life. Don’t tell the grieving person that bad choices caused the death of their loved one, even if it might be true.
- Asking questions such as “How can I help?” isn’t useful. The grieving person probably isn’t thinking straight. They don’t know how you can help. Bring over a casserole and a hug. Sit down and be prepared to listen.
- If you offer to pray for the bereaved or their loved one, then do it. They need all the support that they can get.
- If you are able, follow up again. Let the person know that you’re continuing to think about and care about them. Once the initial shock is over and the flurry of condolences has ended, grim reality begins to set in. The bereaved need as much support a week later, a month later, even years later, as they needed when you first reached out to them.
“Never turn down a dance. A second invitation isn’t guaranteed.”