Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Grief: What Other People Say...and Don't Say

People have asked me to write about this.  There are two categories.  The first is the things people say that you find hurtful.  The second is when people act like the person who died never existed and won't talk about them and don't want you to either.

When people are trying to be helpful in a hurtful way  some times I can nod my head and other times I can be mean in an attempt to make them understand.  We all have different ways in which we feel supported.  I hate, "I'm sorry for your loss." especially when it is a throw away line.  I didn't lose Artie.  He died.  Some people can accept whatever people say because they understand they are trying to be comforting.  When Artie first died I thought, "I'm okay with not being okay." was a good answer to the kind of stupid question, "How are you?" until only three weeks after his death a good friend said, "Still?".  People, especially people who love you, want to feel better themselves by making you say  you feel better when you really don't.  It's up to you if you want to be honest about how you feel.  There's nothing wrong with choosing to express your true feelings.  There's also nothing wrong with being silent.

Another thing people often say  is "Do you need anything."  Unfortunately the answer to that can be, "Yes.  And it's not you."  That's the hardest thing for people who love you to understand.  I need the support, love, and laughter of my friends but that doesn't take away the need I have for Artie.  What I need is for him to be alive and that is impossible.  Because I have a snarky sense of humor I would say in response to that, "Can you resurrect dead people?"  When they said, "No.", I would reply "I'm okay then.  Just wanted to check."  Humor always helps me.  I look for friends who don't mind snarky humor.

It was different when Artie first died and my unhappiness had a much large quality of desperation to it. However, then and now, who I find most supportive, whether strangers or friends, are people who look me in the eyes and acknowledge the pain I feel missing my husband.  Their words aren't important.  It's the connection with a feeling - the understanding that when Artie died my life changed in ways that even now I struggle with.  That's what I would say to someone who asked, "What do I say to a grieving person?"  Acknowledge the reality of their suffering (even if the person died many many years ago).  What I say now when I meet someone who has had someone die is, "Whatever you want me to say that would be most helpful, pretend that I have just said it."  That acknowledges their feelings and the impossibility of me understanding what will bring comfort where there is no comfort.  I also let people know that whatever they are feeling is normal.

Sometimes in response to someone, I make it personal.  I pick someone in their life that they love more than anything and ask them, "If your wife died - or your child died - would you get over it in 6 months?"  One man had tears in his eyes when he thought of how he would feel if his little girl died.   I call this mean because I don't like to hurt people.   On the other hand, it gives them an understanding that they don't seem to get in any other way.

There are always people who are so uncomfortable with grief that they disappear from your life.  That can be very hurtful.  A woman at a bereavement group said that out of the 700 people who attended her husband's funeral none of them were in contact with her.  If this happens to you, you are not the only one.  I am lucky that two or three of Artie's friends keep in supportive touch with me.  I have friends and family who are always with the real me.  I had someone who was a "best" friend stop speaking to me.  I have also made new friends.  Some of the most understanding, dearest friends come form other people who are also grieving.  How did I find these people?  That goes back to what I always talk about.  Show up.  Show up even when you don't want to.

We can't control what other people say.  I hope that   you find someone to talk with that understands.  If you don't have people in your life that do this - there a lot of on line resources.  There are people I've met through these resources that I am still in touch with regularly.  We are life lines to each other because we have been through similar experiences.

As far as the problem of family and friends not talking about the person that has died - I don't understand that.  I have 23 years of living Artie stories.  I have stories about him since he died.  People who never met him feel like they know him.  I'm lucky that people listen to the stories.  I will say, "My husband used to say "Always leave room for miracles and the inadvertent."  Or something simple - if someone is talking about flowers I might say, "Artie loved roses."  or if they are talking about fighting, I might say how I broke plates once - throwing them on the floor because I was angry.   I was with someone last night and she got a loving message from her partner.  I said, "I'm so glad that you got that message.  I hope you appreciate it.  My message sender is dead."

I've never had anyone tell me not to mention Artie.  If I did, I think I would say that's not possible.  He's a very alive dead person to me and he is still part of my life.  There was a line in a television show.  A man's wife was dead.  Someone asked him, "How long were you together?"  He said, "We still are."   Don't be afraid to tell people not to be afraid to mention someone's name.  Don't be afraid to say you like talking about them.  I do know stories of people who have broken off relationships because people don't want to hear about someone who has died.  In that situation I can only say that I am so sorry when people are cruel, even if that isn't their intention.

You always have the right to respond to what other people say in whatever way is the best for you.  However, if silence is more comfortable with some people than expressing your true self I still hope you find the blessing of at least one person who loves and understands your honest, flawed and beautiful self.  Remember it is okay to say to someone who offers help, "Please listen and accept what I have to say."  I have found that if I take a risk and say or ask what i want to but am afraid to, 90% of the time I get a good response.  When I am honest about my feelings it makes a space for other people to be honest about their feelings.  When I ask for something I am surprised at how often I am given it.

With the percentage of people that walk away from that kind of being in the world - or the people who I walk away from because I don't allow people to mistreat me - there is confusion and pain.  However, what I get from taking the risk far outweighs having to deal with occasional rejection.

It's normal and praiseworthy that we want those we love not to be forgotten.  When I die, I hope there are people who share funny and tender memories of me.  Healing is not getting over it.  Healing is not moving on. Healing is being alive and grieving.  I believe very strongly that grief isn't about stages - it's a roller coaster.  I know people who have happily remarried and still miss the person who has died.  We need to bring grief out of the closet.

I wish always for the world that people tell their stories and that people listen to each others' stories with an understanding rather than a critical ear.  You are normal.  You are brave.  You are a grief warrior. xo


  1. This is so real! I'm a Grief Warrior too...2 years and 9 months. Your post gave me a sense of "normal" and comfort. It's a journey and I'm grateful for those that share their grief. Thank you!!

  2. This was so wonderful to read. Bookmarking your blog.

  3. After reading 2 of this lady's perspectives on someone's passing and all that goes with it, I would agree that there is a need for an over-haul.
    The things people say, do, or don't say or do are too often thoughtless or meaningless or senseless.......therefore, unnecessarily extra painful and disillusioning.
    It seems like society needs to be educated on grief, bereavement, and mourning.