The Million Dollar Question...
Updated: Mar 6, 2021
"The less we say about it the better...make it up as we go along..."
- Talking Heads 1983
When I originally started to think about creating a blog to help my healing, I was going to name it “I Don’t Know What To Say”, because that was the phrase that I was hearing from almost everyone I came into contact with… from my elderly neighbours to the family and friends who know me best. Everyone was silently, painfully asking themselves the same big question. "What am I supposed to say?". Nothing seemed appropriate.
Not “I’m sorry for your loss” (It doesn’t really feel like enough somehow, does it?)
Not “My condolences” (Too old-school. It sounds like something you say to an 80-something widow while too-aggressively shaking her hand at the funeral parlor).
And definitely not “Holy shit, I can’t believe he just disappeared!” (Way too aggressive but probably most accurate statement for the thoughts bouncing around most people’s brains at the time. That’s fair. I would be lying if I said I wasn't thinking the same thing!)
So, everyone just said “I don’t know what to say.” And I get that. I really do.
One of my little gifts is that I am not awkward. Even in awkward situations I usually have the ability to make the people around me comfortable. Maybe from a lifetime of working in the hospitality industry (so much awkward!), or maybe from all my years of traveling and from working with children and teens with different physical and cognitive abilities – I can connect with most people in most situations. Even when my husband took off and accidentally died on me, I didn’t let it get too awkward. I simply responded “It’s okay. Nobody knows what to say to me and I get that. You are not alone."
The problem is, with the level of distress involved in a tragedy like this – or the loss of a child, or a job, or a miscarriage, any loss really – most people experiencing it won’t know what they need you to say either. We are at a loss here too. We didn’t get a chance to think it through and then we just find ourselves needing support but not knowing what that looks like.
It is… awkward. Uncomfortable. It leaves everyone feeling completely inadequate.
It turns out the Million Dollar question has a two-cent answer. Here's my two cents...
There really ARE no right words to say. No one will ever nail this “supportive friend” thing during times of crisis, because no matter how much experience we have in helping people in grief (and I know LOTS of you that have been in a supportive role many times), none of the people you support will be having the exact same experience as one another. None of those people will have the same emotional response to your words. Every one of those people will hear you through a different set of ears and with a different emotional constitution. Every one of those people is changing, emotionally, from moment to moment. They are on the wild, wild rollercoaster of grief and it’s almost impossible to anticipate their highs and lows. There is simply no way to catch up to them with words.
In my experience so far, there are a few things that are within your control as you make the effort to connect with someone who’s grieving. These things I have come to value tremendously as I ride the coaster myself.
You can control and monitor the Frequency, the Authenticity, and the Consistency.
By “frequency” I don’t mean that I need the contact to be frequent. I mean that I can feel the frequency or vibration of the person who’s talking with me and if it’s a high vibe and a loving frequency then they literally cannot say the wrong thing. I can feel their intention, and that means more than the actual words. It is the general melody of the interaction that sticks in my heart - not the lyrics .
It’s like the dog on The Simpsons, you know, Santa’s Little Helper? Sometimes they do a shot from the dog’s point-of-view and it always just looks and sounds like a warped, blurry “blah blah blah” BUT that dog knows just what kind of vibe he’s getting from his human (I’m not sure The Simpson’s are actually human, but you’re picking up what I’m throwing down here…) and so he can receive it and process it based on the frequency. The words don’t matter when love is the frequency.
See?! He's just soaking up the big love!
However, when FEAR is the frequency it either gets awkward and impossible to converse (which is not supportive or fun for anyone!) OR the fearful person just literally will not show up at all. Really wonderful, kind people who love me and Darcy and our kids have totally ghosted me because of this kind of fear. I have had people who know our family VERY well sit in a room with me for well over an hour without ever acknowledging my loss. Because...fear.
Honestly, I guarantee it’s harder on them than it is on me. To feel SO lost for words that you can’t confidently acknowledge someone after they suffer a tragic loss is probably a terrible feeling. No shade, friends. There is a legit lack of information out there to help you in this situation. If you are a person who finds yourself retreating or hesitating to reach out to someone in need, please forgive yourself for that because it is not your fault. You were not given any training or guidance on how to deal with death and loss. It isn’t part of our dialogue. In our culture, when someone dies, we plan a gathering, everyone eats and drinks too much to numb themselves instead of experiencing the pain and actively mourning…and then we call it a day. Under rug swept. We end the conversation because of fear and, inevitably, some poor souls are stuck with deep, unresolved wounds which seldom manifest into happy endings.
This big unanswered question about finding the right words is why I decided to start sharing my grief story. We need to understand that this is a learning curve for us all and the bottom line is there's no obvious way to support the griever besides just showing up with love, authentically and consistently. If you are an authentically funny person, I hope you’ll show up as that! If you are a quiet listener, show up and do that. If you are a caregiver by nature you could offer to grocery shop, cook a meal or take the kids for a walk.
Just remember that in any given moment, the griever may not accept your offer but they’ll certainly appreciate it and feel that authenticity. For example, many people offered to bring us food when Darcy died, but I am the cook in our home so it felt unusual to have others delivering meals to us. My kids needed to feel grounded, safe and just a little bit of normalcy, wherever possible, so that meant they needed me to be in the kitchen (preferably singing an 80's power ballad) BUT I appreciated every offer. And when those offers or texts or silly cat GIFs are CONSISTENT then I’ll know just who to reach out to when I DO need help or a meal, a laugh or a babysitter. Consistency shows me that you love me unconditionally – whether I can accept your current offer of help or not. You just keep reaching out. It doesn’t matter to you if I am calm in one moment and batshit crazy the next. You have no expectations of me. That is what I need to know during this time. That you will show up, no matter what. That I can rely on you, consistently, even if I forget to respond to your texts sometimes (Nadine S!) or I graciously refuse a lasagne (almost everyone else I know!). I know you are there. That is what helps my heart, makes me feel held and keeps me keepin’ on.
In my experience, if we keep these ideas at the top of mind and let go of our fixation with having the “right words”, we can alleviate a lot of the disconnection and isolation that we feel as grievers AND as supporters. We will all be in both of these roles, multiple times, in this life and so will our children so let's start modelling a new way. Let’s just bring the high vibes, authentically and consistently. You’ll feel way better! I’ll feel way better! Just showing up is going to keep your dial tuned into love and I will be able to feel that frequency. You will too. I promise. #winwin
Til Next Time,
Heal and Be Healed.