Speak my name and I shall live forever
This is the one thing in the Top Ten outlining what TO say. Now I am making the sweeping assumption you are concerned about what to say to the grieving or you would not be reading this blog. If that is not the case, here’s a link to some dancing hamsters, which is probably more along the lines of what you’re surfing the Internet for. But if you’re here because you want to know what to do, this is the number one thing that you must do:
Always acknowledge the death when you see the widow for the first time.
No matter when it happened. No matter how much time has gone by. It doesn’t take more than “I’m sorry”. Practice in the mirror if you have to. But say it. Do not hesitate. Do not avoid it. Do not think that the widow—or the sibling, or the child, or the parent, or the friend—has forgotten for a minute that they’ve lost their loved one. Here it is again. Let’s say together now, shall we?
“I’m sorry for your loss”
It’s all you have to say. In fact, really. It’s all you need to say. Think surgical strike: acknowledge and move on. You can go back to telling the joke about the horse walking into the bar. Or whatever. It does help to have a follow up: “How ’bout them Mariners”. Just go on with whatever you were doing. Or, if you do have something more to say and she seems up to it, tell them a favorite memory. Say why you miss your friend. Share something funny or sweet. But please, my friends, do not avoid mentioning the death. You’re aware of it. They’re aware of it. We’re all aware of it. I promise you that she’s well aware of it and you are not, by any means, bringing up something that isn’t already ringing in her head like church bells. It’s a very big elephant in a very small room.
If you’re hearing about the death for the first time, just say you’re sorry and move on. You don’t need to go on about it. You don’t need to suddenly drop into solemn hushed tones with a mournful face. You can continue the conversation. A few weeks back, I met someone at a party who asked if I was married. No, I answered, I’m a widow. The entire tone of the conversation shifted, you could feel him frantically casting about for what to say after saying “I’m sorry to hear that.” On it went to “What did he die of?” I’m having fun at a party, I certainly don’t need to go into detail about how he died with someone I’ve only just met. Asked and answered. Just say you’re sorry and move on.
Alternatively, I promise you didn’t make her cry. And don’t assume she’s one of those people who “doesn’t like to talk about it”. That might indeed be the case, but if so, it means you don’t need to go into depth of detail about how he died, how much money is left or any of the other things that just dig you further into a proverbial grave (you should forgive the metaphor). Please don’t say you don’t like talking about such things. I think we’re all with you on that one, but come on. I’m not asking you to write a thesis on the subject. I’m asking you to reach out to your friend.
One friend, who was suffering from terminal cancer herself, blurted out “Son of a bitch” when she first saw me after John’s death. It was a heartfelt and genuine response. It actually was quite powerful. She was really pissed that he had died and that was her immediate reaction. For friends like her who acknowledged John’s passing, however they did it was an enormous weight lifted. We could then go on, having both given a nod to this awful detour on life’s path. For those who did not, I never knew whether they were even aware he had died (should I bring it up? Talk about awkward!) or it put up a distance between us that has never been bridged.
I can’t emphasize enough my gratitude for friends and acquaintances who say, even now, I’m sorry for John’s loss. I miss him. The world is a smaller place without him. Good God he was a piece of work. Whatever it was, each person who says it brings John back to life for a moment and brings me closer to seeing that the love we shared lives on, even if he does not. That’s why it is important to say it. I wish I had understood this better for my friends who had lost loved ones before. I would have been kinder to them. I might even have said, “Son of a bitch”.
Time makes no difference, it still matters. Acknowledge it, say you’re sorry for the loss and move on. You’ll all be glad you did.