What To Say When You Don't Know What To Say
I have this weird relationship with Incredible Amounts Of Grief where, like, I’ve literally been there — I know there’s nothing to say, and nothing will heal but time. When The Bad Thing™ happened, I felt angry so often with people wasting both my time and theirs trying to string together something moralizing and impactful, either to Make It Better, or to make themselves feel like they tried. When The Bad Thing™ happened, the only thing that would’ve made it better in any capacity, in any universe, was The Thing un-happening, or (the more common path) simply many years of hurt, of crying in the middle of the day for seemingly no reason, until the sun started to rise on my world each morning again.
Despite this, I know what it is to watch someone grieve and feel desperately that I would do anything I could, in any capacity, in any universe, to take away some of the tidal waves of pain that person was experiencing. I’ve caught myself in the same stuttering moments of palaver, uttering everything in hopes that my meaning somehow makes it across — “I love you, and I hope someday you don’t feel this hurt anymore, and I hope that day is soon”.
I’ve have tried to be critical of myself, thinking about how to improve my own response, given my particular expertise in this scenario. I thought back to when The Bad Thing happened to me, and how I would have changed their reactions. Most of the things people said fell into a few categories:
⛓ What Not To Say
I know what you’re going through.
Don’t care, and no you don’t, and even if you did! Even if truly you do know what someone is going through, that’s not what they want to hear. Imagine you experienced the worst thing you’ve ever experienced, a kaleidoscope of skyscrapers falling into your mouth from a thundering sky, disintegrating every bone in your body. Imagine that sinking feeling you get sometimes, except it sinks one hundred times faster and harder and it never stops — and then further imagine somebody told you that this exquisite, technicolor masterwork of suffering wasn’t something completely unique, in fact everyone probably has to deal with the kaleidoscope sooner or later. You knew this to be true, but being reminded to think of others’ experiences when you’re being eaten alive by the thoughts of your own experience isn’t helpful.
They’re in a better place now.
I remember well the flash of anger I felt when someone had the audacity to bring me their religion and their stale platitudes when all I wanted was my little brother back. How those words about an imagined afterlife held a magnifying glass to the raging sunlight of my grief and burned deep lines down my skin — he lived a life of exploration and adventure and troublemaking, and now he’s in a box in my room; that’s hardly a “better place”.
Secularity aside (and “aside” is doing some incredibly heavy lifting here), it’s still an irrelevant thing to share: Even if I believed they were in a better place, they’re not with me, now, and like I mentioned before, that is the only thing that would fix this moment.
Keep your head up.
Honestly, what part of “kaleidoscope of pain” makes you think someone’s grieving head is gonna be anywhere but plunged into an ocean of agony for the next decade?
It gets easier with time.
I know that, I’ve seen the movies about people experiencing grief and healing from it, but grief has this special, incisive way of annihilating any sense of temporality one might have — one finds themselves trapped in a singular plane of cyclical thought and emotion. Unless you have those years of healing ready to inject intravenously, don’t bring the promise of those years.
⛓ What To Say
Just say “I’m sorry for your loss”. It’s not overdone — rather it carries the tradition of sorrow of millions of sorries-for-your-loss past. It’s succinct and respectful of the grieving and their time. Listen, if they have something to share, and know unequivocally in this moment there is nothing else you can say.