Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ten things not to say to someone grieving a death

This day, ten years ago, my mother died of cancer.

I still miss her. I didn’t want to write a blog post about her or the illness—too personal, sorry—but when I thought about what happened after her death, then there was a lot that needed to be said. My mother had extremely religious friends, one of whom had exorcised the demons of cancer out of her a few days before she died, and some of the things they said to me, I’ll never forget.

1. “You’ll get over it.”

Or what I got, which was minus the “you’ll”.

Especially if the death happened recently, the person may be deep in grief. They need to work through that at their own pace. They don’t need to get the impression that there’s something wrong with their pain, so other people are looking forward to that being over and everything going back to normal.

2. “She’s in a better place.”

Firstly, not everyone believes in an afterlife.

Secondly, my mom’s place was with her family. Period.

So each time I heard that, I thought the person saying it didn’t know my mother at all, if they believed she could be happy without her children and her home and her busy, cheerful, productive life.

3. “She’s watching over you.”

Shortly after my mother died, an acquaintance of hers phoned up to tell me this. She also claimed my mother would always be with me and if I ever needed anything, all I had to do was ask my mom. After I got her off the line, I shouted to the empty house that my mother was d-e-a-d, dead! and as a result, she wouldn’t be hanging around like Casper the Friendly Ghost.

If people are helped by the belief that their lost loved one is now their guardian angel, that’s wonderful for them.

But please. Don’t assume that everyone shares this belief, that everyone wants to share it, or that everyone needs to hear it about their own loved ones.

4. “Everything happens for a reason.”

Every time I hear this I think, “Yes. Sometimes the reason is that shit happens in this world to people who don’t deserve it. Wonderful reason, that.”

It’s great if people take comfort in the conviction that there’s meaning and/or a good outcome in grief and loss. But again. Please don’t assume that everyone shares this viewpoint, or that others will appreciate the idea of their loved one’s death being planned so something special can take place.

5. “She wouldn’t want you to feel like this.”

Even if she wouldn’t, the fact remained that I did. Piling guilt on top of everything else isn’t likely to help.

And I just wished the person saying this wouldn't try to speak for my mom.

6. “At least she isn’t suffering any more.”

Yes, the reason she’s not suffering is because she’s dead. Er… yay?

7. “She wasn’t such a great person, really.”

After my mother’s funeral, my father’s cousin started to tell me about a flaw in my mom’s character. I immediately interrupted to say I wasn’t interested in hearing it and never would be interested in hearing it. My mom was not perfect, and I’m well aware of that, but no one gets to criticize her to my face.

Slamming a dead person to someone grieving the loss of that person is an especially low blow. It’s not going to produce the result: “Maybe I should stop feeling sad.” It may, however, lead to: “Maybe I shouldn’t speak to you again, so I don’t feel worse.”

I can only imagine what such people say when someone dies of a drug overdose or through not wearing a seatbelt. Keep the judgments to yourself, please. The dead person’s relatives don’t need to hear them.

8. “It was meant to be.”

I don’t have to explain why this is hurtful and unproductive, do I?

9. “I will do this and that and the other thing for you.”

Which is lovely if you mean it.

But there was a couple in my mom’s church who (at social functions) kept saying what they would do to help me, without ever actually doing anything. After the first couple of letdowns, I wised up.

Maybe they felt good to say this, maybe it was like “let’s get together some time” or “I’ll call you in the morning” or maybe they got brownie points from the people at church who overheard but who didn’t know they never followed up.

10. “What a saint she was. She never doubted. She never said a word of complaint.”

She never said a word to you. Maybe because she knew you wouldn’t want to listen.


Maria Zannini said...

It doesn't matter how much time goes by or how old you get, you always miss them.

I lost my dad to pancreatic cancer 13 years ago. I still think of him.

Little things remind me of him: cooking, awful jokes, and the stories he told.

Other than the one spiteful person you mentioned, I think most people are just trying to say something helpful. It's hard to say the right things, unless their own pain is still as fresh.

I'm sorry for your loss.

Marian Perera said...

I wonder if it's a cultural thing, Maria. I got the impression from my Sri Lankan extended family that the mentally healthy thing to do would be to forget about her and move on. Except maybe on the anniversary of her death when I could dig out a photo and put a flower next to it or something.

I'm sorry to hear about your father. Cancer is a nasty, slow, unfair way to lose someone. :(

Remembering can hurt sometimes. But I'd rather remember than forget.

Oh, and I'm planning a follow-up post with suggestions of better things to say to someone who's grieving, especially if that person isn't religious.

Mary Ellen Quigley said...

I lost my Mom three years ago. It's still a daily struggle. She was my best friend. I am a religious person, so a lot of the "she's in a better place" type comments made sense in that context. However, they didn't make me feel any better. She isn't with me or the rest of the family, which means I don't necessarily consider that better. I think people are looking for something nice to say, but they don't think it through. I learned to ignore the hurtful comments. I would have rather had a simple "I'm sorry for your loss" than an unsolicited piece of stupid advice. "You'll get over it" ... No. Actually I won't.

Margaret said...

Marian, people turn into clods in times like these, saying the most inappropriate things. I've found that really the only thing I can say to someone who's lost a loved one is: "I am so sorry for your loss. I will be thinking of you." Also, "I'm here if you need to talk."

When I was pregnant and had to spend time in ICU--the doctors thought I'd give birth at 23 weeks--a coworker said something like "If you lose your baby, it's probably for the best." She explained how the body got rid of these things for a reason. I full-on wanted to kill her. I didn't. Everything turned out okay. And I forgave her, but people do lose their minds wanting to say something.

I lost my brother three and a half years ago and still grieve. It's not as intense, but it's still there.

Good post. Good reminder for all of us.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I feel like the proper things to say are "I'm sorry" and "I'm here if you need me". Projecting thoughts and feelings upon the deceased is a distasteful and unwelcome thing, from my perspective.

It amazes me just how fast people wish the grief of others to be over, since it's such a messy freaking inconvenience to them.

steer clear of falling anvils said...

I'm so glad I logged on and read this post.

I lost my mom to cancer earlier this year, and I hated every one of those comments. Granted, I used a lot of them to people who tried to be supportive, but it was either that or rage at them.

The one comment I hated the most was: "You'll stop hurting and missing her eventually. In time, you'll start to forget her."

Marian Perera said...

Mary Ellen, I'm sorry to hear about your mom. You're right, it's hard. Things remind you, memories crop up unexpectedly.

For a long time after my mom's death, I dreamed I met her again and she was fine. Once she even supplied an explanation for this - she'd received special treatment that had cured her. I was actually logging on to the Internet to tell everyone when I woke up.

Marian Perera said...

Margaret... I can't believe your co-worker could be so insensitive. I just hope that after she got past that "oh no, what do I say to make things better?" state, she realized her mistake.

Thanks for sharing this. And my sympathies for your brother's loss.

Marian Perera said...


"It amazes me just how fast people wish the grief of others to be over..."

This, exactly. Witnessing grief can be uncomfortable and disturbing, and some people just don't know how to handle that.

Marian Perera said...

steer clear of falling anvils :

I'm so sorry about your mom's death. It's bad enough missing her and hurting without getting comments like "In time, you'll forget her."

No, you won't. Love doesn't work that way.

Thanks for commenting and sharing your experience!