What do you say when someone dies?
I spoke with an acquaintance whose relative passed away the other day. I gave my condolences, and he remarked at how meaningful what I said to him was and that no one ever approached death in that way. He asked me “How do you know what to say?”
He’s not the first person to ask that. It’s a tough question. I really had to think about it for a while because I never really stopped to analyze it until now. I suppose it’s because I have certain rules in my head that I follow. Perhaps they can be useful to someone who has a hard time finding the right words in a tragic time.
My “rules” are as follows:
1: I don’t say “I’m sorry”
In American language “I’m Sorry” doesn’t mean what we think it means. In everyday language, when someone says “I’m sorry” to you, you’re supposed to say “It’s okay.” This is more of an insult than a condolence in the case of death. It shifts the focus of the tragedy to you instead of the griever. I’m sure no one intends for it to be perceived this way, but in my opinion it’s a phrase that has all the wrong connotations.
Believe it or not, the main focus of what I say is simply “That sucks”. What comes before and after that statement varies depending on the person and how they respond to things. If someone might take offense, another rendition would be “That’s terrible” or “I wish that never happened.” Statements like these keep the focus on the griever, and allow you to share in their pain symbiotically (in a way that makes both parties better), where as the usual statements used in society are parasitic (in a way that makes the griever worse while making you better) in nature.
2: I don’t ask “Is there anything I can do?”:
This doesn’t put the focus on you the way that saying “I’m sorry” does, but it makes the griever focus on something other than grieving. It puts them on the spot and makes them feel pressured to know what they need when in all actually, they have no clue what they need most of the time.
Knowing what they need without needing to ask is the greatest form of comfort a person can offer. If that seems impossible, just realize that people don’t really differ from each other all that much. They-want what-you want; companionship, they want to feel special, and they want to feel purpose. Death reminds us that we’re next, it takes away something from our life that was important, and it takes away our ability to control a situation. Essentially, it strips us of our identity and our humanity. In a way, who we were dies with the person we lose, at least to some degree. The only way to survive is to take something of value from the experience and grow and adapt from it and become something new. Anything less leaves us incapable of moving on and we become dead-emotionally which is not something anyone would wish on their loved ones.
3: Just be there
I prefer to sit, or in some way spend time with the griever. I ask them how they feel about the situation, what the person was like, what the person meant to them. I put the focus on the griever instead of the deceased. No offense, but the deceased are just that; deceased. They’ve gotten everything the world can give. Those still in need are the living. Allowing the griever to talk about the one they lost is a way for them to work through their emotions, to let the bottled up feelings escape. Some people want to bottle everything up because they feel like if they let it all out they won’t have anything left. They punish themselves hoping they can hold on to the person’s memory in honor of them. This isn’t healthy. However, talking about it strengthens the memories of the departed because teaching is the best way that humans learn and storytelling has been humanities main source of education from the beginning and even into today. In this regard, you aid them in letting go, while helping them remember. You give them companionship by being there, you allow them to be the center of attention so they feel special, and by asking them questions about what the person did for them or how that person made them better, or even just made them feel, you allow them to gather a purpose from the person’s existence, which puts a value on their death.
At the end, THEN I’ll make a STATEMENT like “Anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask, I’m here.” I’ve never had someone take me up on the offer, but it relieves tension from the griever. When they feel all alone, they know that if things get too tough, they have someone to lean on. While it might be more of a gesture than anything, don’t say it thinking a person won’t ask for help, be ready to help, or don’t say this at all. It’ll hurt more if you don’t keep your promise, than to have never made the promise in the first place.
4: I don’t put words in their mouth:
If someone insists on being left alone, fine, but I don’t tell them “You probably want some time to be alone.” Chances are, if they haven’t asked for the alone time, it’s because they don’t want to be alone. If they’re not talking about it, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to talk about it, they just don’t know where to start. If after asking them how they feel about the situation as mentioned earlier, they still aren’t opening up, I’ll talk about my own feelings of desperation, fear, insecurity, confusion, etc. where death is concerned. Even if I don’t know the deceased, I can talk about how I felt during a personal experience.
However, again, I always keep the focus on them. Instead of “When my friend died of cancer at such a young age, I didn’t know how to feel about it, believe me, I know what you’re going through.” I lean more towards “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through, I know when I lost my friend to cancer I was shocked, I didn’t even know how to feel about it, like…. What are you supposed to say? Ya know? How are you supposed to react? Everybody expected something from me, but I just didn’t know how to feel. What did you feel when it happened?”
The difference is it lets the person teach ME something about death, it lets them talk about themselves and share their journey instead of reassuring me, or reassuring themselves which is an action that is very short and impersonal, indicating a desire to break contact. I don’t know what they’re going through, but I have been through something similar, and we can talk to each other, hopefully without being misunderstood. That’s something a person can take a risk on exposing themselves to.
If you lose someone together, the best thing to do is to share it. “We lost them.” “What are we going to do?” “You remember when they…” Then bounce back and forth with sharing more individualized experiences. Offer back and forth what you think should be taken from the event. The back and forth conversation will evolve the concept into something you both can agree on and move on together, strengthening your bond while remember the loved ones lost.
In the end, this acquaintance asked me to help him write his relative’s Eulogy. What I gave him was a few notes, ideas, a short paragraph and I told him to start with that and go from there. Later, he thanked me and said that everything I wrote went into the Eulogy after he added some personal stories, etc.
That’s basically it as far as what I do is concerned. I’m sure there’s more to what a person does in order to be there in the right way, but those general ideas seem the most important when it comes to consoling the grieving in a way that will benefit them.
Thanks for reading,
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