What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving

In these last ten weeks full of sadness and support, people have said some truly wonderful things to me, and I'd like to share a few, in case you too are looking for the right words. 

A brief disclaimer though: there are no right words. 

Nothing can take the pain of grief and loss away, try though we might. And lord, I wish that weren't so. After we lost Jake, in the immediate next few days, it was very important that people keep talking to me. My fear was that people would be afraid of saying the wrong thing and so they wouldn't say anything at all. 

I worried about this, because I have done it myself. Keeping my distance from the intensity of grief. The pain is so incredible and so raw and unrelenting, I had a tendency to stay back. I can see now that this was foolish, but when you don't know what to do, you really don't know. 

And the truth was, I was scared of grief. I read a beautiful story once of a woman who'd lost her husband too, and she made a new friend in her new town. Kind of a strange, eclectic person that is all out there with their emotions. One night the friend visited the grieving woman while she was crying and insisted that it was okay to let her come in the house. "Let me in, Claudia," she said, "Your grief doesn't scare me." Beautiful. (But I couldn't imagine saying that myself. The idea of some young woman suddenly losing her husband was terrifying. It still is. But it's also real life now.) 

So here are a few ideas on things people can say or have said or versions of things I've heard that have been nice to hear or read. 

Me and his sister Meggie at his service

  • How are you today?
  • How are you right now? 
  • I'm bringing dinner over, what sound sounds good? 
  • I'm coming over after kids' bedtime. Do you want red or white? 
  • My husband wants to come over to help with any yard work/housework you may have.
  • Thinking of you. No need to respond.
  • Thinking of you and sending love.
  • Sending prayers for you and your family. 
  • Was just sitting here working and got to thinking about you. Always sending love in your direction babe (from a friend who lost her mom)
  • Ah, guilt. The unexpected buddy of grief. I'm working on that myself. (from a new widow friend) 
  • I have no words to express my condolences or to say how wonderful I thought Jake was.
  • I wanted to call but didn't know when was a good time.
  • I didn't know what to say, frankly I'm still in shock. 
  • Too often when tragedies like this happen, people ar afraid to reach out because they cant find the right words and grief tends to make people uncomfrotable. I am admittedly one of those people.

Hearing about how other people are processing all of this can also be very welcome. Or just hearing about other people's problems and being able to help a little or offer some advice. This may seem counter-intuitive. People don't want to heap more emotional stuff on me and I get that. But it's nice to be helpful or to be a listener. In my case, I've only got problems that no one can solve.

It's also nice when someone who isn't as close to me just waves or smiles or nods in my direction. There's no obligation to talk, and sometimes I don't really want to. In the first few weeks I felt incapable of even smiling back. But that has gotten easier. And I'm trying to think of these little moments as chances to feel connection and brighten my day.

What isn't helpful? There's only one thing I've pinpointed as truly unhelpful. And this is when a conversation turns into ME comforting someone ELSE for feeling sorry for ME. It's a very specific, and luckily rare, situation. Like, "Oh my goodness I couldn't imagine if MY husband died, I wouldn't be able to do it!" or "Tell me, how are you doing it??!" But not because they want to know, just because they want comfort from their own fears. This sort of thing hasn't happened much and never with family or friends. But did happen once in front my loving grandmother, and she politely, but abruptly, ended that conversation for me. Bless her. 

I suppose there's other things that aren't helpful, but I think that's because there are no perfect words. Platitudes don't help. "You'll get through this," or "it will get better" are not inherently bad, they just don't help when you're slogging through it. I've told people, "You'll need to keep telling me that." Because I don't believe it right now. I don't have ears for it. But I will. I want to believe it.

Lastly, I love hearing stories about Jake. It's a real comfort. We shared tons of stories at his memorial service and reception, and we keep sharing them at parties and late night visits and phone calls. I'll talk about his with anyone. I love getting more information about his life. It might seem like I'd be sad to hear his name brought up, but really the opposite is true. I love it. I want so badly to re-live the story of our life together. I want to know everything about him. He was incredible, and I got to love him for thirteen beautiful years. His capacity for empathy and true friendship was off the charts. And he was the absolute best husband and father to our children. His stories make me feel like I'm living a little bit more of that life, which makes him feel a little bit closer.

A Terrible Thing Happened

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This was something I wrote on a note to our delightful housekeeper before she came in to clean up a living room full of unfamiliar furniture, sympathy cards, and absolutely none of Jake's clothes to wash or fold. "A terrible thing happened." The furniture had to be replaced because four weeks earlier my husband Jake sat down on our old green couch and never got up.

Yesterday (a Monday, already a terrible day), it was 8 weeks. Mostly I feel like nothing has changed. Mostly I feel like I cry just as much as I did those first 4 weeks. Mostly I look around this house and wonder where did he go? Why did he go? We needed him. We love him. I don't know how to do this without him. 

Except that I am. I still need to get the kids fed and dressed and off to school every day. And although I've been mostly capable of doing this, I have no idea how. People tell me that I am "strong," and they don't know how I'm doing it, but I'm "doing great." I'm not. Or maybe I am. But it doesn't matter. I don't wake up every morning thinking, what do I want to do today? Should I be heroic? No. I just wake up and miss him and get the kids ready and miss how he used to take Olivia to school every day and miss how everyone would say hello to him at her school because everyone loved Jake. 

I obsess over how this happened. I obsess over everything I wish I had done differently. But how can you predict a heart attack? If I had asked his doctors if this would happen, I suppose they would have "yes, it could, he is at risk." And he was. And I suppose we knew that. But it was both predictable and completely sudden at the same time. There are a thousand little things that contribute to heart disease over years and years, and there is one quick little moment when it happens, and then they are gone. It feels like he slipped through my fingers.

I can't decide if life works like this: where life is resilient and the ability of the body to live and withstand hardship is strong and it really takes quite a bit to kill a human body. Or is it like this: where life is fragile and we must make choices every day to keep the human body healthy and strong or else life slips away? I don't know why this is so heavy on my mind. It feels important that I figure this out. And every day there is some new mystery, big or small, that gets my wheels spinning. Like whether I should move back home and live with my sister. Or whether I should cancel Jake's credit cards.

I will write more. I may not share much more about Jake's medical history because frankly it's no one's business and he never shared it much himself. But there is much I need to say, and writing feels good. He would want me to write-- for that reason, and because he really liked my writing. He would tell me that I'm strong too. It kills me.