Oh, I could go on about this one for pages and pages. I could write involved masters dissertations and multiple doctoral theses on the subject.
You’ve said it. I’ve said it. We’ve all said it. It’s pretty much the standard Thing To Say. So I’m putting it in the “Don’t” category, right? Well, yes and I’m also putting it in the “Do” category. You want desperately to do something for your friend, to help them through this difficult time, to help yourself with your own sorrow. And you want to do something that is genuinely needed, that matters and that really does help. You don’t want to make things worse.
Easier said than done? That’s why so many people say this phrase. It’s easy to say! It’s harder to come up with alternatives. Or we say the wrong thing and she gets upset. Or we make offers and get rebuffed by the grieving widow. Why should we keep trying when nothing we do is right?
If we were all in a cartoon, here is an illustration of the thought balloon I imagine going above everyone’s head:
FRIEND: If there’s anything you need, let me know.
FRIEND THOUGHT BALLOON: I know you’re hurting and I genuinely want to help
WIDOW: Thank you, I don’t need anything right now.
WIDOW THOUGHT BALLOON: I can barely think of my own name, I can’t think of an assignment for you. You’re just making it harder.
F: Why don’t I do [your helpful suggestion here]?
FTB: Maybe if I just tell her what she needs, I can be useful and not just stand here helplessly watching her cry.
W: I just want to be alone. [alternatively: I just want some company.]
WTB: Please don’t leave me alone. [alternatively: Go away.]
FTB: I want to help but I can’t bring her husband back. She’s crazy.
WTB: I need your help but you can’t bring my husband back. I’m going crazy.
Therein lies the rub. She wants your help. She wants to be left alone. She wants you to do things. She doesn’t want you to touch anything. She wants you to say the right thing. She only hears the wrong thing. Because the only thing she wants is to make the grief go away and no living person can do that. A grim reality no one, especially the widow, wants to face.
It’s saying it over and over again but never doing anything about it where the problem comes in. Trust me on this one: She’s heard it over and over and over since the death. Over and over. Seriously. It gets a little overwhelming and as the widow you eventually want to scream, “I don’t KNOW!”
Here’s how you can make it something worthwhile: If you don’t genuinely mean it and have something in mind—and if you can’t follow it up—say something else.
What might help, then? Let’s get some suggestions out there:
Between the death and the funeral/service
After the fun is out of the funeral
The first half year