Because we are working with a script of cliches, we may accidentally say things that will be unhelpful or hurtful to someone grieving the loss of a loved one. I will describe in this post five unhelpful things that were said to me while I was grieving, which I would not recommend being said to anyone in grief.
Death is so unpredictable, but one thing is sure: at some stage in our lives, we all experience its effects.
Here are five unhelpful things people have said to me as I grieved the death of my spouse, Chidinma. I hope this post serves as a guide to help those supporting a bereaved friend or family member know what not to say to someone grieving.
Everyone wants to say the right thing , but it is true that when someone grieves, it is very unfamiliar to know what to say or do, so most of us resort to these scripted expressions with the hope that they bring some comfort and relief.
I have found that unfortunately, they don’t. So, while I knew some meant well, those words never made me really feel better.
There are three types of responses we tend to have towards someone grieving the death of a loved one. We either carefully approach, try to skip over it completely, or say nothing at all.
Why did I find those expressions unhelpful?
Whilst almost all of us are well-intentioned, we may end up saying things that are unhelpful or hurtful because we are working with a script of cliches out of fear of saying the wrong thing.
I have found that we tend to focus more on trying to work through our own discomfort in the moment, instead of really being genuinely there for the person who is grieving.
To be fair, knowing the right thing to say to someone grieving the death of a loved one isn’t a skill that anyone is born with. Generally speaking, we tend to shy away from conversations about death and grieving.
Many of us have not had much contact with people in desperate emotional distress, so when we support, it is not always simple.
It is important to note that I am not trying to get back at anyone who may have done or said things that irritated me the most as I grieve the loss of my spouse, Chidinma.
My main aim here is to share my experience so that we can as a society become better at being grief sensitive and grief friendly.
So let’s dive into the top 5 things not to say to someone grieving which I have arranged in no particular order.
5 things not to say to someone grieving.
This is why be strong is number one on my list of things not to say to someone grieving. Some well-meaning friends and relatives said that or sometimes assertively commanded me to “be strong,” “be strong for… (your children, your parents,…..) at times it was “be a man.”
“Be a man” got me irritated the most. I would respond in my mind, “Sir, what does “be a man” look, sound, and feel like in times like this?
What does “stay strong” mean? Could you model it for me? Do I walk around and puff my chest, put on a deep voice to demonstrate this?”
Each time someone said “be strong” or any of its variations, it made me feel that my expression of pain is a sign of weakness.
It came across to me that they were telling me what I feel should not be what I should feel right now and that I should feel something else that is not weak.
I decided that I didn’t want the medal for being strong.
I remembered when the air hostesses on an aircraft give their demonstrations, one of the important messages they pass on is that parents must put on their life jackets or use the oxygen mask before helping their children or anyone else.
Following this news about my wife, Chidinma’s death, how can I be strong for the children, for others if first I am not strong for myself?
I love our children and other family members but right now I need oxygen to breathe.
It is a strength to permit yourself to feel your deepest, most difficult grief-related emotions of grief. I believe that that is one of the bravest things anyone grieving can do.
You are in a sad, raw place when you’ve lost someone you love. There is nothing that anyone can say that will inspire you, particularly statements that start with the words, “at least.”
I remember a handful share with me that “at least she gave you two children, a boy, and a girl”
May I strongly suggest that you stop and not say it if at any point you feel like saying “at least” when comforting someone grieving the death of a loved one.
I felt rushed and arm-twisted to be optimistic when the truth is that I was feeling dreadful.
I found some relief especially in the early days, weeks of grief when anyone acknowledges that Chidinma’s death was bad enough as it is and validated my feelings.
She’s in a better place, God’s in control
I wanted to shout down anyone who told me this, especially in the early days of grief.
“Which better place? The only better place where Chidinma should be, is right here with me, right beside me, why should she be elsewhere?”
If I knew how to get to heaven without dying, I would have marched straight there and brought her back.
Emotionally detached faith-based conversations
I grouped those who reached out with a faith perspective into two categories; the difference between the two was that some were personable and went beyond the faith perspective while some were rushed and emotionally detached.
The ones that I considered emotionally detached felt like they had to rush what they had to say, and before I could speak, they had begun praying and were ready to end the call.
At times they stirred the conversation in a way that meant I had no choice but to agree with their point of view.
I felt preached at. The reaching out felt like a cold call on your doorstep from a salesman who was in a hurry to meet his quota for the day.
It felt like they didn’t want to hear what I had to say or were afraid of what I would say, so they ended the call.
Am I suggesting that you shouldn’t try to provide comfort for someone who’s going through grief from scriptures?
There are comforting scriptures, but my opinion is that you should share scriptures that validate their pain and the situation.
Don’t attempt to find the silver lining because there is no silver lining (see also: “at least” above) when you find yourself in the deep dark tunnel of grief.
One question that still remains on my heart is why is it that some people you expect to be available appear not to be found? I am still pondering on this and will share my thoughts at some point
“If you need anything call me”
Often well-meaning friends and relatives would say “if you need anything, just let me know” or in other variations like, “if there’s anything I can do, let me know” or “let me know if you need anything” etc.
I will like to share two stories about how I reacted and responded each time I either heard or read any of the variations.
The name and gender are fictional, but the incidents did happen.
Ratandy has been an amazing friend and has played significant roles in I and Chidinma’s lives. Our relationship has gone past friendship level, we had a fridge and every room access. We are now pretty much family.
Friendship comes in different levels. I think that you’re truly friends with someone when you have fridge access and you have moved up when you have all room access. What do I mean by this?
Fridge access is when you visit a friend and don’t have to ask for permission before gallantly escorting yourself to their kitchen to open their fridge and take anything you want in there.
When you visit a friend, and you say “omo mehn*…………. I am hungry” and they say “you’re no longer a visitor, open the fridge and serve yourself” or they say “take the pot and raw ingredients and cook.” Do you get the gist?
Back to the story.
Ratandy had also been a very supportive friend since Chidinma’s death. He was and is still very active in our lives, driving for hours to ensure that we lacked nothing, coordinated with our other circle of friends who were also involved in supporting us.
On this particular bright spring afternoon, He had visited and found me upstairs in my usual spot. My usual spot was my room which was dark because the blackout blinds had been drawn.
I was accustomed to being alone and had begun to enjoy the company that the darkroom brought as I processed the rally of thoughts that raced across the circuit of my mind.
I hear a knock on the door. Knock knock knock. He comes into the room and switches on the light.
We exchanged pleasantries and he sat on the floor by the wardrobe opposite the bed as we spoke about how the night had been and other administrative responsibilities that I needed to get done.
What Ratandy didn’t know was that I was already annoyed and irritated with “if you need anything call me” and its variations. I had heard and read them countless times.
During our conversation, my mind would switch back to the messages or remember people who had said it to me. I would switch back to the conversation either because he needed a response from me or had repeated what was being said.
I had it in mind that anyone that tells me “if you need anything else let me know” would have an earful.
I know what you’re thinking. Did he say it?
We carried on talking. I remember that the conversation was light because there were occasional short bursts of smiles and laughter.
He wasn’t ready to leave yet but wanted to chill with other members of the family who were on the ground floor and just as he reached the door to leave, he turned around and said something along the lines of, “the boys wanted to know if you need anything else, let me know”
What did I do? I didn’t do anything
What would you have done?
Ok here’s what I did. I went on a rant. I had a mini-outburst.
There is a saying from the southwestern part of Nigeria “O kowo bo mi lenu,” Literal translation is that “he put his hand in my mouth”.
It felt like the tank burst with water gushing out of the side or when you accidentally opened the tap without realising that it was going to open in high flow as you find yourself partially drenched.
I said something along the lines of “could you guys not pass this responsibility to me think about what I wasn’t. What I need is Chidinma and you can’t give me that.”
“I have never been on this path before, so I don’t know what I need. could you guys not help do the research and suggest the things that I need?” amongst other things.
We apologised to each other and if you’re wondering about what happened to our friendship after that. We still have a fridge and all room access.
It hasn’t been revoked! We have become rant buddies, taking turns to rant. Some days he would lead the rant and other days I lead, Like call and response music.
I felt like my rant tank had been emptied and that the message of “if you need anything else let me know” has come to an end. But, no it continued. Several other phone calls and messages ended with that.
Around 2 am on one of the nights that I couldn’t sleep, I had an incredible thought that lingered longer than necessary on my mind.
I thought, “do people mean it when they said call me any time? Did they mean it when they said if you need anything let me know?”
While pondering on those questions, like someone gently tapping you on the shoulder, I felt another thought suggesting that I test the authenticity of this question of “if you need anything let me know” by requesting that I needed 1 million pounds from the next person who makes this statement.
Later in the day, I told my friends what I was hoping to do, and we laughed about it. I felt good seeing these guys who I knew were also grieving and tired smiling. It’s one of the few moments of laughter that I still remember vividly.
I decided that if anyone else asks me, I would send them the message.
So, did someone else ask me “If I need anything, I should let them know?” Of course, someone did. I remember the first person I sent it to. I haven’t had a response in over 7 months from the person again.
I have sent the 1-million-pound request to a few people who have since asked me and some responded with a lol emoji and some didn’t respond.
What am I trying to say?
Whilst this idea tends to be a harmless offer, it can be perceived as a way of escaping after the condolences. And the responsibility of being the one to ask for support is put on the grieving person.
Each time I was asked that question, I felt that additional work was being created for me, which meant I had to think about what I needed.
This drained more emotional and mental energy to determine what I should assign out. Other times I simply didn’t know what to ask for.
Instead, you could anticipate specific tasks that fit the person’s needs. For example, taking the car for a wash, house-sitting during the funeral, house chores, etc., or if you know who their primary support network person is, you could ask the person of which areas are yet to be covered so that you could step in to help.
I found that it was easier for me to accept the support if the offer was specific rather than being open and broad.
Please avoid making promises and not following through. It will be remembered because it cuts deep and really hurts.
So what can you say to someone grieving?
You can read further on a previous post on some of the best things to say to someone grieving.
Oftentimes we want to share about how the loss affects us and tend to ‘manage’ the grieving person’s emotion to our comfort level. Please remember that It’s about the person grieving and not about your feelings.
I’d love to share your coping with grief story too.
I intend to expand the blog and resources on the website to include stories of other people who have lost a loved one, not limited to losing a spouse. I’d love to hear about how you handled grief. Would you please let me know if you would like to share your story?
I am also open to having anyone anonymised if that’s your preferred option. Complete the contact us form with the text “I would like to share my story.”
To Be Continued Next Wednesday…
I would like to hear from you. Would you please share your thoughts, comments and reflections below. Thank you.