by Annette Bridges. ©2010. All rights reserved.
I still beat myself up over words said many years ago when a friend’s child died.
Today, I was reminded of this when another friend posted on Facebook, “People say odd and not-helpful things to the grieving. A simple — I’m sorry for your loss — is really much more appropriate.” She provided a link to a helpful article published on AOL Health titled, “10 best and worst things to say to someone in grief.”
I agree with my friend — it is a good article. And I agree with its list of both the ten best things to say and the ten worst things. The article points out that most of us have probably said some of the best and the worst. Sadly, some of my worst made the top ten.
Life can change in the blink of an eye. My friend and I shared many breakfasts together, shopping outings and trips with our daughters. We went from being together every week to rarely ever seeing each other.
And time has not lessened my regrets.
I still recall the extreme emotions I struggled with. My heart ached. I could hardly breathe or swallow as I sat on the swing waiting for someone to open the door. It was like a very bad dream that I wanted desperately to wake up from. I didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want to believe it was.
I had no idea what to say to my friend when she opened the door. Actually, I don’t remember what I did say. I just remember feeling later that it was wrong or stupid and I wished I had said nothing at all.
I know now that it’s very normal to not know exactly what to say or what to do in these tragic instances. In fact, we don’t need to feel we should have answers or provide advice. And oftentimes, it really is better to say nothing. Being there — just being there — is enough. Our supportive and caring presence is all that is needed.
Not too long ago I did have the occasion to speak to this friend with the opportunity to express my regrets for any stupid statements said in her first moments of grief. She told me that she didn’t remember anything I said or anything anyone else said to her during those hours. But what she did remember was that I was there.
The old adage, “If you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all” could be applied in scenarios of grief. However, I would tweak it a bit — “When in doubt, say nothing.”
Trust me — there probably aren’t many good things to say to someone grieving. And it is better to say nothing, than something that is later regretted.
So, what should we say or do when wanting to comfort friends in grief?
Again, the simple “I am so sorry” can be enough. We might add, “I am here for you.” These are two from the top ten best things to say list.
We can be honest and admit we wished we had the right words, but don’t. And we should always, always listen without comment. We should never disagree with or argue or judge anything a grieving friend says in their first hours of grief. Something I wish I had understood back then.
I may not be able to change what I said in the past. But I can consider my words more compassionately in the future. And I will remember that giving a hug or squeezing the hand of a grieving friend speaks volumes. Our presence is what matters most.