Completely Unhelpful Things to Say to Someone in Grief, Part 3

[This is part of a series of posts on completely unhelpful things to say to someone in grief. See the others here.] Nothing.

Even though my default option of what to say to someone in grief has always been this one, of saying nothing at all to them, I've come to believe that it's just as unhelpful as the things in the previous two posts (see Part 1 and Part 2).

Saying nothing is certainly understandable, because we're so afraid of saying the wrong thing. We understand that when someone is in grief, no one- including themselves- knows exactly what might open the floodgates of emotion that they're likely fighting to hold back. (Is it just coincidence that no one has said anything to me about Spam sandwiches since I recently posted this? Okay, it probably is. I can't really think of a time when anyone has ever said anything to me about Spam sandwiches.)

My reasoning when I have chosen to say nothing to someone in grief usually goes like this:

  • As mentioned above, I don't want to unknowingly say the thing that might open the floodgates for them, so it's a safer option to say nothing.
  • Plus, they very likely want their space right now in their time of grief and for me to say anything might be an intrusion into their privacy.
  • And I really don't know what to say anyway. "I'm sorry" doesn't make any sense, because I don't have anything to do with the reason for their grief. "I know how you feel" probably wouldn't be good, because although I may have gone through something similar, I really don't know how this feels to them. Etc., etc. Any of the list of options among the things people usually say easily fall short of any good analysis.
So, we often choose not to say anything.
Now I'm learning from the perspective of the one doing the grieving what a poor choice I've made when others around me have gone through hard times and I've chosen to play it safe and say nothing. Saying nothing isn't just unhelpful, but depending on your relationship to the person, it can actually be painful for them.
Let's say that our friend and coworker, Joe, is in grief over the recent loss of a loved one, and for all of the reasons above, I think it's best to say nothing to him. The problem is that from Joe's perspective, his grief currently feels like the entirety of his world. Even though he's likely doing all that he can to resume some degree of being able to outwardly function in the world, inwardly he rarely passes an hour without being more focused on his sense of loss than whatever it is that he's supposed to be doing at the moment. For him, it is as C.S. Lewis wrote after his wife's death, "Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything."
And this applies to Joe's relationships as well. As he walks around the office in his first days "back" after his loss, he is keenly aware that everyone who sees him thinks, "Oh, there's Joe..." and awkwardness ensues. If my choice of handling that awkwardness is to say nothing about his grief, that likely comes across to Joe as being equal to my saying, "Joe, I don't know how to handle this, so for the sake of any kind of relationship we have, we need for things to get back to normal as soon as possible." Perhaps instead of saying that, I say an innocent, "Hey Joe. Good to have you back." But Joe knows that he is anything but "back," nor does he want to be.
The last thing Joe knows how to do in his grief is get things back to normal. Normal simply doesn't exist for him anymore. His world as he knew it before the loss is largely gone, and he is only at the starting line of the immense task of constructing a new world that he would prefer to never have entered.
So, please, in some way, say something. Joe knows words don't exist for you to say "just the right thing." And you don't even have to use your voice to say something. My pastor repeatedly sent me one-word emails or texts that said, "Prayers." That was enough. Or say, "This stinks," or any other words that are honest and don't try to fix the situation. Even words aren't necessary... my Dad's way of saying something without saying anything was often just to give a pat on my back.
So the next time you see a Joe for the first time after his loss, choose an option other than saying nothing.
*The downside of writing this is that I realize how many awkward next encounters I've just created with friends who will read this. Seriously, have no worries. Perhaps we can come up with a secret signal that will give you something to say that's inconspicuous to anyone else around, but lets me know you're aware... How about, "Hey, Daniel, would you like to eat this cheeseburger I just bought for you at Whataburger?" I guarantee you that will go well, as long as it's accompanied by an actual cheeseburger.