A friend of mine is grieving the death of her husband. She is in her late thirties; he was forty-two, fit, beautiful, the life of every party, and the father of her two young children. His death came out of the blue, and knocked us all sideways.
The day I decided to finally announce my pregnancy on Facebook – after weeks and weeks of divulging the news face-to-face to as many people as possible – I received an email from one of the friends I hadn’t had a chance to tell before, confiding in me that she had had a miscarriage the night before. Her second, after two years of trying to get pregnant.
What do you say at times like these? What in hell can one possibly say that can express the rage and grief and sadness that wells up? What can you say, when you don’t know what to say?
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Stop worrying about saying the wrong thing and say something. “There’s nothing you could say to make this worse,” wrote my widowed (Widowed! Oof.) friend in her email to us, letting us know her soul mate had died. No kidding.
The simple phrases work the best. “I’m sorry.” “How horrible.” “I’m thinking of you.” “Talk to me.”
“I don’t know what to say” works too. It has the clear ring of honesty.
And yes, “How are you?” is OK, so long as they know that you’re not expecting to hear, “Fine.”
What doesn’t help, for most people anyway, are the platitudes: “He’s in a better place.” (They don’t want them in a better place – they want them back where they belong.) “I’m sure it’s just nature taking its course.” (Even if that’s true, does it help?) “Don’t worry – I know you’ll [get pregnant / find love] again.” (They’re not ready to hear it, and they don’t want a replacement, anyway – they want the one they lost. Besides, you can’t predict the future.)
When you don’t say something, you contribute to their sense of isolation. Not talking about it suggests that it’s not OK for them to talk about it. At a time when their whole life is upside down, they need to talk about it. Make room for that.
Let it suck. It’s hard for us to sit with pain – painful to witness our loved ones suffering, and uncomfortable to experience it ourselves. It’s OK to crack a couple of jokes, or dive into doing something – preparing a meal, for instance – but don’t let that be an excuse to avoid the sadness altogether.
It sucks. It really, really sucks. Let it suck. Give them space to tell you how it sucks and that it just keeps sucking, day after day. This is a huge gift. Your presence with their pain allows them to acknowledge and release it, bit by tiny bit.
Accept that they are not defined by the pain. They might need a little levity. They might want to be distracted. They might crack jokes that shock you, or want to talk about TV shows or go to the gym. That’s OK too. Give them space to experience lightness amidst heaviness.
Offer support. Make it specific. Almost no one accepts help when it’s offered like this: “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” That’s because the effort of figuring out what you need & how to ask for help is exhausting; it’s much easier to stay silent. So if you really want to help, offer something specific. “Can I bring by some groceries on Monday?” “Would it be OK for me to send cleaners to the house sometime next week?” “I’m heading to the aquarium – can I bring your kids with me?” “Can I bring by some stupid movies and ice cream?”
Ask permission. Accept no as a possibility. If you hear no, offer again another time, or ask if there’s something else that would be more helpful.
And if you can’t offer tangible support right now, that’s OK. Keep it simple: “You’re in my thoughts” is enough.
Look after yourself; you need energy to be a good friend. Get enough sleep. Eat well. You don’t need to put your life on hold to look after your friends, because they need to trust that you are OK. They won’t feel comfortable leaning on you if you’re being a martyr.
Others have written on this subject, too. Here are a couple of helpful links:
- 7 Things to Do (and not do) When Someone Dies, by Rose Stricker
- What do I say? Expert advice on helping friends and family cope with the loss of a baby, by Belinda Miller (See also: Things to say (and not to say), at the same website.)
- The first thing to say to a friend in need, by Danielle Laporte