Let It Suck.

Photo: soup season, by looseends (Flickr) Photo: soup season, by looseends (Flickr)

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:

14 Responses to “Let It Suck.” Subscribe

  1. magnus 21 Aug 2012 at 7:46 am #

    This is lovely and very touching, Lauren. Thanks for posting.

  2. Susan 21 Aug 2012 at 11:14 am #

    This is great Lauren. I like the let it suck aspect. There’s a line in the poem “The Invitation” about being with pain, and not trying to change it or fix it. It is hard to do sometimes, when confronted, but after many workshops I have seen the healing aspects of that. I just learned today of the death of a friend of mine on the 17th – also sudden. Your words are timely. Thanks.

  3. Lauren 21 Aug 2012 at 11:40 am #

    Susan, my deepest condolences for your loss. Thanks so much for your kind words – time to re-read The Invitation.

    Best,
    Lauren

  4. jen 21 Aug 2012 at 11:44 am #

    Your friend’s situation is so sad, my heart breaks for them. I love what you said about offering help though, and being specific. We have a new baby and are so grateful for all the help and support we’ve received. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but offers of “let me know what I can do for you” stress me out and more often than not I ignore them. Asking for help is hard and things are already less than easy.

    • Lauren 21 Aug 2012 at 12:33 pm #

      Jen, I felt exactly the same way. “Let me know if I can help” translated for me as, “I don’t know how to help and want you to manage me.” (I’m sure that’s not how it was intended, but that was the impact.) I had enough to manage with a newborn & just filed those offers under “No need to respond.”

  5. Sam 21 Aug 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    I usually say “Let me know if you’d like some company. We can be quiet if you want to be quiet, talk if you want to talk, drink if you want to drink, and be sober if you want to be sober.”

    • Lauren 21 Aug 2012 at 1:39 pm #

      Yes. Perfect.

  6. Marianne 21 Aug 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    Thanks, Lauren. When my mom passed away a few years ago, I was thankful for every word, card, email and bouquet I received. Perhaps the most touching thing was when a person who never knew my mom came to the funeral, just to show me her support. Wow! What I found quite painful was the silence and the avoidance from certain co-workers (in an artistic cooperative for goodness’ sake!). I understand where that silence came from, though, because I had once been like that. I just didn’t know what to say or do when someone else experienced loss. Now I know. Just say something! And offer what you can, as you can, as you suggested in this piece.

    • Lauren 21 Aug 2012 at 1:38 pm #

      Marianne, I’m so sorry about your mother’s death. Thank you for sharing your experience here.

      You mention having had trouble in the past knowing what to say. I have certainly not been consistently good at this in the past – sometimes it can feel really risky to speak up, particularly if your relationship with the person who’s suffering is oblique or complicated.

      I feel like life has conspired to teach me this lesson recently, and I’ve had some generous teachers. So I’m grateful for that, although I fervently wish the circumstances under which I’ve learned it could be reversed.

  7. Debra Halbig 22 Aug 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    Thank you. Great advice and the “be specific” is especially helpful for many levels of suckage. I suffer from depression and the line about not having the energy to figure out how someone can help is exactly true. If people would just offer food or offer to take my children – those would be the greatest gifts: Time. Peace. Thoughtfulness.

  8. gary atkins 17 Sep 2012 at 11:23 am #

    This article has been very helpful and is well written
    thank you

  9. Toni Jacaruso 23 Jan 2013 at 10:36 am #

    I am so grateful to read your spot-on blog post. Having recently been through a devastating loss, it’s nice to know someone out there “gets it.” Thank you.

    • Lauren 23 Jan 2013 at 12:31 pm #

      Toni, thanks for your kind words – and my deepest condolences. I hope you find the support you need at this time, and can let yourself lean into it.

  10. Dominica 28 Jan 2013 at 6:27 am #

    I am in agreement with your advice. No one wants to hear “Everything will be ok” when they are feeling like crying, screaming, and disappearing. They want empathy and compassion. Sit in the mud puddle with them for a bit.

    Love your site:) You shine.

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