A friend of a friend died in a bike accident. Terrence was a well-liked man and an exceptional athlete. My friend Joe runs a local shop. I was there when he got the news that his friend had died.
As new grievers often do, Joe went into stunned shock. He wouldn't talk about it. We had dinner that night and he brushed it off when I brought it up gently. Yet at the most unusual times, he brought it up himself.
I know shock only gets you through the first few days, so I stopped by Joe's shop a week or so later to see how he was doing. There were two young adults talking earnestly to him. Turns out, they are Terrence's children. I hadn't intended to walk into something so intense and private, but now I couldn't leave without making the situation worse.
I listened to Terrence's daughter talk about her dad. Part of her conversation spoke of him in the present tense, some in the past tense. We all do that when the death is sudden.
Joe was doing the right thing -- telling positive, encouraging, amusing stories about what a great guy their dad was. I offered a few words of support.
But then dear Joe said to these grieving young people, "Well, I guess it's good that he died doing what he loved." I cringed when he said it and I watched the daughter and son wince.
Joe saw that he'd done something wrong and started to backpedal. It was a thoughtless comment, one of the hundreds of stupid things people doubtless said to them over the next few weeks. He is a gentle man -- he would never want to hurt anyone. He just made a common mistake people make when trying to comfort grieving people.
The No. 1 mistake we make when trying to comfort someone who is grieving: telling them a reason or a belief meant to make them feel better. You can't make them feel better! Their loved one just died. Knowing what to say will make the situation easier to bear for you and for them.
The Top 5 Most Common Mistakes People Make When Trying to Provide Comfort:
1. "At least he died doing what he loved," or "What an honor that she died defending our country," or "before the pain got any worse" or any such insensitive comments. These imply that the grieving person should be logical about their grief. There is nothing logical about emotions.
Don't deny someone the right to feel sad for as long as they need to feel it.
2. "At least she isn't suffering/is at peace now." Why is this wrong? Because it heaps guilt on the survivors. It implies they should somehow be glad or grateful for their own loss. It insinuates that there's a reason for the death and you know what it is. You do not. Don't say anything. You only have your opinion. Please keep it to yourself.
3. "I understand how you feel because..." You do NOT understand, even if you also had a child, parent, friend or pet die. When both children died in a car accident, dozens of people said, "I know how you feel because my dog (or cat) died..." You do NOT understand how someone else feels because each relationship is unique. The nuances of the connection, the shared history -- you do not understand those elements even if you were in the same home. Think about your siblings, if you have them. Did your parents have the same relationship with each one of you? Of course not. Loss is loss, but saying you understand is an insult.
4. "She's with Jesus now," or "He's with the angels," or any religious bandages you think up. Even if you think the person has the same beliefs as you, don't imply that you know the location of the deceased's soul. The assertion of your faith may be taken quite poorly by someone who has even slightly different beliefs, or is questioning them in this time of loss. "Well, I guess the Lord just needed him home" makes the bereaved person angry (at God or at you) or feel guilty because they are questioning God's wisdom in removing their loved one. Grief is an opportunity to develop authentic beliefs. Don't foist yours on someone else.
5. "If there's anything I can do to help, just call me." The bereaved person will never call you. If you are a close friend, organize a hot meal drop off, come over to watch the kids, offer to help the bereaved to pick out a casket, stuff like that. If you are not a close friend, be gentle in your offerings. Either way, always offer specific, helpful, logical things -- the bereaved person isn't thinking clearly. They do not know what they need and are likely unaccustomed to asking you for help. Offering the amorphous "anything" will make you feel better, but it will never be called upon, even if they really do need help. Be specific, but NEVER pushy.
The best thing you can do -- silently listen if and when they want to talk to you, even if they become repetitive or show dramatic emotions.
The best thing you can say, as feeble as it sounds? The tried-and-true: "I'm so sorry for your loss," or "I'm so sorry you are suffering." Then be silent.
By being aware of these simple things to do or not do, you will be a much more appreciated and valued comforter in this dark time. You will be truly supporting and helping the person you care about in their hour of need.