You get a call from your friend who you haven’t talked to in months. You are excited to catch up and share good news about your life when she shares that her brother suddenly passed away two days ago.
You say “I am sorry. I will pray for your family.” As you say this response as a normal reflex, your head is full of questions, feelings, thoughts, and scripted condolences. Each of these is bouncing around in your head like popcorn. You feel sad and also you feel ineffective and clumsy.
Talking about death is hard, uncomfortable, and scary. It can just feel awkward.
This is true for everyone involved in the conversation including the person who is dying, the grieving loved ones, and the support circle of those who are grieving.
Why is talking about death so challenging?
Let’s break it down together to see if we can make some sense of the awkwardness for those of us who are providing comfort in the midst of grief. Hopefully, we can also find a way to do better for ourselves and for our loved ones. In a previous blog, we talked about how people say the darndest things about grief and how the griever can choose to receive it. Now, it’s time to take a look at our choices in the conversation about loss.
We say the darndest things because we are afraid.
Why is it so scary? This fear can stem from so many things including:
We don’t know what to expect with how we die
We yearn for control
We have unattained hopes and dreams
We worry about the impact for our loved ones
It is a reminder of our own mortality and the mortality of those who we love
That’s a lot- huh? It looks tidy as bullet points, however our feelings around death are not this clear cut and simplistic. We are complicated beings.
I have said it before and I will say it again- life is hard and death is hard.
When we don’t know what to expect, we may experience uneasiness and fear. Cultures and religions across the world have varying beliefs about death (which we won’t dive into within this blog because that would be more of a book series).
We have made extraordinary efforts to reduce the unknown through the lens of culture and religion.
Even if you have certainty about what happens after you die some questions may remain. The questions come from not knowing what our final journey will be.
Will we die quickly or linger? Will we be alone or surrounded by loved ones? Will we die at home or in a hospital? Will I be in pain or feel nothing at all? Will I know I am dying or will I be oblivious?
These questions create an uneasiness inside of us. While death is certain, our death experience remains mostly unknown. It can be scary to go into something without knowing the journey even if you have faith in the destination.
This unknown also feeds into our fear about not having control. We are afraid of death because we yearn to be in control. It is hard to accept that we have little control of our death. Most of us have limited power when it comes to our own deaths. We don’t have the answers to all of the questions listed above nor do we know with certainty and control over our deaths. Very few of us do well with the idea of powerlessness.
We also feel fear about death because we have plans, hopes, dreams, goals, and things to do! When we learn of the passing of someone, we may suddenly think about the trips we haven’t taken or unmet professional/academic aspirations or relationships we have put on hold. We have checklists that need checking and death is not included on our list.
Death is scary because we have people that we love and we fear how our death will impact them. We want to be with them to support them and love them and we don’t get to do that when we are dead. When you have love for someone, you do not want to see them hurt. Experiencing the death of a loved one hurts.
When we learn of someone dying, we are reminded of our own mortality as well as the mortality of others that we love. This reminder breeds fear. Being reminded of our vulnerabilities can hit hard. While we do not have superpowers nor are we immortal, most of the time we don’t want to be reminded that death is our final journey. We feel susceptible and afraid.
Each of these fears may or may not resonate with you when it comes to death. For many, these thoughts are the seeds that grow into an awkwardness about death. In identifying and being honest with ourselves about these thoughts and fears, we can lay the groundwork for more meaningful and honest conversations as we comfort our grieving loved ones.
We want to fix “it” for others.
Talking about death is also hard because we really, really, really want to fix “it”. We don’t want our friends to feel sad, hurt, or bereaved. That desire makes us a good friend which is amazing!
Here is the problem with our goal, we don’t get to fix “it” because our friends do not need to be fixed. Our friends need to feel supported, loved, heard, and cared for.
It is completely normal that our friend is sad, tearful, angry, and more when they have lost someone close to them
These feelings do not need to be fixed
These feelings are not signs of dysfunction or being broken
These feelings are a sign of being human
These feelings are the evidence of love
If you are searching for the “right thing” to say with the goal to take away their pain- you will probably fail.
We may put pressure on ourselves to use the regurgitated platitudes to express our condolences thinking that the phrases will lessen the loss. Why do we think that there is some magic phrase that will magically erase the pain for our friends? Why do we think that we are responsible and in charge of how one experiences the heaviness of death?
In my experience, there are no words that can fill the chasm created by losing someone you love.
Let’s just agree to not try to fill that empty space with scripted expressions. The loss and pain experienced are genuine and our responses need to also be genuine.
So, now what do I say or do?
Once you acknowledge your own feelings and fears about death as well as the fact that you can not “fix” the feelings of grief, you can open the door to how you can respond.
The reality is that there is not a perfect or right thing to say. Despite the fact that there is an abundance of scripted platitudes, they may not be the best response to console those who are grieving.
Do yourself and others a favor and let go of the idea that you will be able to say the perfect thing as you console others.
Speak from your heart
It’s okay to say “this sucks”
It can be connecting to say that you don’t know what to say.
Be present and available as a listener
Allow the space for quiet contemplation
Say their name
Share the stories and memories
Grief can be very isolating even when one is surrounded by friends and family. This sense of isolation can be exacerbated by well intentioned attempts to console. Being honest about the feelings of grief and speaking from your heart can help diminish the loneliness and create a connection.
It’s okay to acknowledge that it sucks to have someone you love die. You can even say- “I don’t know what to say” and then just be present.
It can be powerful to just provide a space without filling it with words. Sometimes we feel like we need to avoid the lulls in conversation. However, there is a lot that can happen in those spaces of silence. Be present in the quiet spaces in order to allow space for growth in understanding and processing of grief.
It’s okay to talk about the loved one who has died. It can be healing to share stories and talk about them. Talk about their impact and the life that they lived. It’s powerful and connecting. They were here and the have left an impact.
Ultimately, my hope is that you will allow yourself to be human and to be real. Let go of the idea that you will say the right thing and that your friend or family member will no longer be sad.
They are sad because they are grieving. They are sad because they loved someone who has died. Grief and love are deeply intertwined- let’s respect that.
When your friend calls and shares their grief and loss with you, please don’t get lost in the scripts. Stay present and allow yourself and them to feel the loss. You don’t get to take away their sorrow, but you can sit with them and support them while their world is fractured with loss and love.
Be real because the world can feel ridiculously surreal after death.
About The Author: Kathy Davis, LMSW
This blog post came from one of our thoughtful Online Grief Therapists, Kathy Davis.
She has helped so many people determine how they want to live with and make peace with their grief. She is incredibly passionate about educating people about the individual grief processes because she has experiences personal loss and grief. She shares this blog from a place of complete honesty and vulnerably.