©Arlene R. Taylor PhD    www.arlenetaylor.org

The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing...
not healing, not curing... that is a friend who cares.
—Henri Nouwen

articles200408“Thank you, yes,” said Colleen, when the waiter asked if she wanted her coffee cup refilled.

“No more for me,” said Anita, shaking her head.

The two women had met to talk about how to interact with Jillian, a good friend of theirs who was obviously not present but whose parents had just been killed in a vehicle accident that was not their fault.

“I never seem to know what to say,” Anita exclaimed, sipping coffee. “Afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, I often end up either mumbling some innate platitude or saying nothing. I know the other person senses my discomfort. And it’s really embarrassing when they try to comfort me.” She made a sound halfway between a snort and a moan.

In the words of Meghan O’Rourke:

There is a discomfort that surrounds grief. It makes even the most well-intentioned people unsure of what to say. And so many of the freshly bereaved end up feeling even more alone.

Unfortunately, only too true. As a result, some say nothing—for fear of saying the wrong thing—which can contribute to the freshly bereaved feeling even more isolated. Some say unhelpful things—in a mistaken attempt to be helpful—that only contribute to the freshly bereaved feeling even worse.

What can I say?” is a common lament on the lips of many, who want to be supportive but have little or no idea of how to go about it.

“For starters,” said Colleen, sipping her steaming brew, “I can tell you what not to say.” She smiled ruefully. “As you know, I also lost both of my parents. For whatever reason, I was closer emotionally to my father than to my mother. For six months I was in so much pain I was dry-eyed. Of course, people didn’t know what to say to me, either—I know that now. However, rather than being comforted, I was often irritated by their comments. No one ever used the word death. Not even the clergyman who did the memorial service. Some launched into a recital of how they felt when one of their loved ones “passed on.” I wasn’t interested in their grief just then. Many of them offered innate platitudes that, while well meaning, were less than comforting. I remember silently creating retorts in my brain and am just glad that my brain filter worked so I didn’t blurt any of them out.”
“Retorts?” asked Anita, genuinely puzzled.

“Yeah, retorts,” said Colleen. “I knew they meant well but I doubt they really thought about what they were saying. I remember going to the grocery store and one clerk saying, Sorry to hear about your dad. Too bad he couldn’t have waited a bit longer to get his one-way ticket punched to the big sleep punched. I tell you: that was unhelpful. For weeks I collected examples of what people said to me. Sometimes I chuckled in private, but for a person in real emotional pain their comments typically were beyond unhelpful and sometimes painful. They sure did nothing to comfort me, that’s for sure.”

“Oh, my goodness,” said Anita. “That is exactly what I want to avoid, which is the reason I sometimes fail to say anything. Give me some more examples and tell me what your ‘silent retorts’ were.” So Colleen did just that.

  • I was sorry to hear that your father passed on. Passed on to where? I sure can’t find him. Do you know where he is?
  • Too bad your dad cashed it in. Hope he made it up the stairway to heaven. That is not in the least humorous.
  • I heard your father crossed over the River Stix. Be glad he’s in a better place. What are you talking about?
  • Sorry for your loss. You have no idea!
  • I just found out that your dad went to his eternal rest in the sweet hereafter. There are no words for this comment!
  • Just give it time. Time heals everything. Oh no it doesn’t. Time by itself heals nothing.
  • Someone just told me that you father went to his happy hunting ground. What a completely idiotic thing to say. You know he was not a hunter.
  • Well, he met his end and you can hope he met his maker. Now that comment just makes me angry.
  • Glad to see you have a stiff upper lip. Of all the nerve...to assume I’m not hurting just because I’m not sobbing!
  • Will he be pushing up daisies, or will you be sprinkling him above ground? That is so crude.
  • Guess he got caught by the fate from which there is no escape. Excuse me?
  • Look on the bright side. Where he went you can’t visit—you’ll save a lot of time. I would never begrudge time visiting him. What a horrible thing to say! Frankly, I feel like altering the shape of your nose.
  • He’s shucked this mortal coil in favor of learning to play the harp. Is that supposed to be funny?
  • Just think of your dad as taking a permanent vacation. Oh, yeah? Without us? Not!
  • I know just how you feel. Oh, no you don’t. I doubt you have any idea. Your dad is still alive and well!

Anita burst out laughing. “I really regret laughing, Colleen,” she said, “but in a way it’s hysterical and laughter is therapeutic. You could do a whole stand-up comedy routine with those comments. What were they thinking?”

“That’s the point,” said Colleen. “I doubt they were. Thinking. They were uncomfortable and may have felt bad later on, if they even remembered what they said. That’s the problem with platitudes and euphemisms. They often pop out automatically. It would have been more helpful to me if they’d just smiled sympathetically and kept their mouths shut.”

“So, did you ever shed tears for your father’s death?” asked Anita.

“I did,” Colleen replied. “About six months after Dad died, I crossed paths with a colleague whom I’d not seen for several years. When we recognized each other she stopped, put her hand on my arm, and said, ‘I read about your father’s death in the paper and I meant to write you a note because I know how close you were to him. I remember him. He was such a warm, people person. Honestly, I have no idea what you are going through because my father is still alive. Is there anything I can do for you?’”

Anita nodded.

Colleen continued. “I told her that she had just given me a huge gift by her words. ‘I know he loved music,’ my friend had added. ‘I’ll picture him playing his favorite instruments in marvelous venues.’ She smiled and we parted. Driving home I suddenly burst into tears and bawled on and off for two weeks. Her words were so real and authentic; not contrived or trite. They helped me to feel real, to move out of the shock stage, and to embrace the grieving process head on.”

“Wow!” said Anita. “What a difference. Let me put into words what I think happened.”

  • She was, as you said, "authentically real." No jokes, no minimization, and no magnification of the event.
  • She actually used the word "death," which made it real to your brain. No platitudes. No euphemisms.
  • She avoided pretending or assuming that she knew exactly what or how you were "feeling."
  • She mentioned one of your father’s best qualities and gave you a lovely mental picture, a visualization to look at in your mind’s eye.”

“It’s almost like a formula,” Anita added. “I know what I can say to Jillian. I can tell her that I remember how I grieved when my mom died unexpectedly. But can only dimly imagine what she must be going through with both parents dying at the same time. In a vehicle accident, no less, that was the other driver’s fault.”

“There’s such a difference between almost brushing off the death as if it were a fly on the table or making fun of it through euphemisms and just calmly stating what is,” said Colleen. “It was a stroke of genius—her giving me a picture of him playing music in marvelous venues, even though that wasn’t his profession. I often see him like that now in my mind’s eye playing his heart out on the violin or the marimba-phone or the alto sax. Such a comforting picture.”

If you know someone who has experienced a loss, be alert and pay attention. You may become aware of their grief through observing changes in their behaviors, especially if they have been unable to verbalize their loss and grief. For example, you may notice that:

  • Their eating habits have changed
  • They are having difficulty paying attention or staying focused
  • They sleep a lot less or a lot more than usual
  • They appear to have either lost interest in grooming or seem to be spending large sums of money on grooming
  • They complain of vague physical symptoms
  • Their behaviors have done an about-face, moving from being outgoing to withdrawn or vice versa
  • They are listless and uninterested in things they formerly enjoyed
  • They are self-medicating in ways that are giving them negative outcomes
  • They seem to be unexpectedly reckless or exhibiting risky or hurtful behaviors that differ greatly from their past modus operandi

You might ask if they want to share what is happening in their life. If they acknowledge loss and grief, ask what they would like you to do for or with them. What they think would be helpful may be light years away from what you expected. One woman asked her friend to accompany her to the mortuary to pick up her loved one’s ashes. If you know them well enough, you may comment on what you notice has changed. Honoring another person includes not trying to push on them what you think would be helpful. They may or may not be willing to talk about them but you have broached the subject and let them know you are interested in their wellbeing. Avoid assuming you know the depth of another’s grief. Ask them to tell you about the person they loved. Telling another person about their loved one can be healing and a way of keeping their memory alive. In some cases, the most helpful thing you can do is just sit quietly with them for a time, sending them loving and positive mental thoughts and not requiring or expecting them to do or say anything.

Remember, grieving with those who have experienced a loss is about them, not about you. Answer their questions if you want to do so, but refrain from talking about yourself and delivering a monologue about “how it worked for me.” That can be deadly not only for grief recovery (because every brain is different) but also for the relationship down the line.


For additional information, refer to Taylor’s website: www.ArleneTaylor.org.

Articles and PowerPoint presentations on the topic of Loss, Grief, Suicide, and Recovery, are available.