"I know how you feel. My goldfish died, and we had to flush it down the toilet." Really?
To this day, Owen recalls overhearing another student make that well-intentioned comment to a classmate who had just experienced the death of both of his parents. "This kid had been out of school for two weeks. When he came back to the classroom, I had no idea what to say. He was different, and I knew he was feeling different. I knew that what our the other kid said wasn't the right thing... but what were we supposed to say?"
Over three decades later when one of Owen's best friends was killed in a bicycle accident, that same awkward feeling came right back to him. He couldn't help but wonder during the memorial service how many others were as perplexed as he was about what to say to the widow. "By this time, I knew what not to say. Yet I still felt like I didn't have the 'right' words to convey my deepest feelings. And worse yet, what if I said something insensitive that made the situation worse for her?"
"I got stuck in the middle," recalls Owen. "Maybe if it is somebody you don't know well, you can say anything and move on. But we had been good friends for over 30 years. I wanted my words to make a difference." As his questions and doubts swirled around in his head, Owen began to grow fearful. He even put off calling his friend's wife for several days, trying to muster up the courage to say something meaningful.
In contrast to his eighth grade experience, by this time Owen had more life experience under his belt, having been to numerous funerals over the years. On top of that, he is a volunteer advisory board member at a grief support center in Woodland Hills, California where he had received extensive training. "I found it ironic," he admits. "Here I am so closely connected to a grief center, and still not having the perfect words." All this made him feel terribly guilty. "Experts surround me so how could I be so fearful? Shouldn't I have just the right words at my fingertips?" Remembering that he had a resource, Owen phoned the grief center for help. "They forwarded some materials to me that were very helpful."
When Owen did reach out to his friend's wife, her immediate response was that she was so glad that he called and that she had been longing to hear from him. With new confidence from the materials he had received, Owen also understood that what really mattered that he was there. "The minute she said 'can you believe it?' we were able to have a great conversation. In fact it was easy to talk to her. She wanted to hear funny stories and wonderful memories; anything that would keep her beloved husband's memory alive. We were on the phone for an hour."
Owen is not alone in feeling at a loss for words when offering condolences. As someone who has devoted her career to end of life and grief, I have over the years spoken to countless family members and friends, mental health professionals and clergy who don't want to sound trite, or conversely, sound too emotional or overbearing.
Here are a few suggestions:
Phrases to avoid:
"He's in a better place."
Yes, that is comforting to know about HIM, but as for me, I think the better place would be to have him right here with me.
"She's with God -- God needed another angel."
What about my need for her? I can't help but wonder why would God do this to my family and me?
"It was for the best."
Best for whom? Who makes that judgment?
"I know just how you feel."
No you don't. You don't have a clue how I feel!
POSITIVE EXPRESSIONS OF CONDOLENCE:
"My condolences" or "I am so sorry to hear of the death of your brother."
Saying this acknowledges the death and gives the griever an opportunity to talk about the person who died and about how he is feeling.
"I can't imagine what you are going through and how you are feeling. Tell me what it's like for you."
This demonstrates that you are truly focusing on the griever and curious about what life is like for them.
"I miss your dad, too; he told the best jokes."
When you recall fond memories of the person who died, it makes the grieving person feel good that others also cared deeply about his dear one.
Remember that your friend will move through their grief process in his or her own way, in his or her own time. Be there for them and accept their grief without judgment. They will continue to need your support. Your thoughtful words and actions will be appreciated not only now, but for many weeks, months, and even years to come.
Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, CT, is the Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, one of the nation's most respected centers for grief support and education. Fredda presents workshops and seminars on end of life and grief for therapists, clergy, educators, and medical and mental health professionals at locations throughout the country. She is the co-author of Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. Recognized as an expert in death, dying, and bereavement, Fredda has devoted her career to life's final chapter.