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WHAT TO SAY WHEN You DON'T KNOW WHAT TO SAY ...A friend calls to tell you that there’s been a death. Maybe you see it in the newspaper or heard it from a colleague.

Someone in your community, a mutual friend or one of the members of your house of worship has passed away. There’s a service planned and you know you should go. But you’re thinking of passing on it because, frankly, you don’t know what to say and you definitely don’t know what to do. You’re feeling sad and worse, you’re feeling bad.

Do not feel inadequate. After there’s been a death, our hearts want to be with the survivors and share this time of sorrow. But while our hearts want to help, our “heads” lack the words or ways to express regrets.

Few people are good at expressing and coping with grief. It’s not your fault. You cannot practice
the feelings of loss ahead of time. Experience with a previous death doesn’t count as each death
affects us in a unique way.

These recommendations will help you to express your feelings in words and deeds. With these ideas come a few cautions, too.

Be a grown-up, even if you don’t feel like one, and as soon as you hear about the death, call, write a note or visit the survivors. Forget about being eloquent. Simply say what is in your heart.

Your feelings will be written on your face and heard in your voice.

Forgo philosophical or intellectual twaddle. More so, if the person who has died is an active service member, this is not the time to spell out your theories on your country’s military efforts. Be sensitive. Try not to repeat the empty cliches of:

“She’s better off now.” “Time heals all wounds.”

“You’ll have other children.” “He’s in a better place.” Before you express anything, put yourself in the survivor’s shoes. While a grandmother’s pain is gone, the survivor may not think kindly that the darling lady is “better off’ dead. Likewise, the parents of a child, even an unborn one who has passed on, may react negatively if it’s inferred that a precious little life doesn’t matter. The comment of “he’s in a better place,” can wound survivors. The only “better” place might be close by the survivor side, sitting in their plaid recliner and watching the evening news.

A simple “Please accept my sympathy” is always appropriate. Do not say, “I know just how you feel.” You cannot know how others feel when they grieve, even if you’ve been through a significant

Make the most of a hug or a handshake. Sometimes words fail. Sometimes, at a death, words
are unnecessary. Try a light squeeze on a shoulder, a gentle hug or a two-handed handshake
to communicate deep feelings.

Offer a tissue. Tears can heal. You may want to cry, too, because you’re grieving. Of course, you
were not as close to the loved one as a family member, but this death may bring back memories of someone with whom you had a close relationship.

Sometimes our own feelings of grief return when we are faced with someone else’s grief.

Be ready to sit and listen even if the surviving family wants to talk about the death, including
shocking details. “Why didn’t Pat stop smoking?”

“Why didn’t she get help for her drinking?” “Why didn’t Marie call if she was that depressed?”
“What was Lee doing in that part of the city at 2 AM?” Unless you were truly able to, don’t provide answers.

Don’t offer comments or observations on death and dying, unless you know for certain that the survivor will appreciate your thoughts. Rather, if appropriate ask questions in a gentle, quiet voice.

You may be shocked to find that your poker buddy Ernie, who seemed blase toward religion, was just the opposite.

Although you may want to share how a Bible scripture helped you at a difficult time, be sensitive.

The death may be too raw for survivors to see the beauty in the words. Oftentimes at a death, survivors remain for sometime in the anger stage of grief when they are furious at the world, at their loved one for dying and at God.

This is normal.

If it’s comfortable, use the loved one’s name.

“Jacob was a fine man.” “Susanne was so organized;
I’m not surprise she chose the hymns for the funeral.” Survivors yearn for their loved one’s presence and by using their name, you acknowledge this special person is still important.

Stay connected with the survivors. Know that those who are grieving may not feel like chatting, as they once did, but you can remain close. You might want to offer, “Would you mind if I call (or
email) every afternoon?” If the survivor says,

“No thanks,” give it a week or so and repeat it. If you honestly care, be creative with ways to stay in touch. Don’t say, “Let me know when I can help.” Survivors won’t except your help, because most people think it’s polite to offer, but they don’t actually want to be of service. Instead make suggestions for concrete ways to help. “Mind if I walk the dog for the next few weeks while you have your hands full?” Or, “I’m heading to the farmers market for strawberries. I’ll place a basket by your front door on my way home.”

Look for ways to say, “I remember.”

Trim a comment from the morning paper and pop it in the mail. Share a recipe, a crossword puzzle or a silly joke. Cards, notes and photos, even if not acknowledged, may be just with the grieving person needs. If you stop in at the grieving families home, don’t be surprised if they are not up to “company”. Keep the visit short and at the front door.

Talk if you want to. Don’t expect to start a deep conversation. Survivors may be grieving too deeply to carry on a discussion. Instead, share memories and chat about the “good old days”.

You might want to recount the good times between you and this friend. Or perhaps share something that became a life-long joke. “Did you hear about the time Jack and I went fishing?

He brought home a trophy-sized trout. All I ‘caught’ where trophy-sized mosquito welts.”

On television everyone knows what to do or to say. In real life we often say too little or too much.

What is right? A pat on the hand and a heartfelt, “I’m so sorry,” are always appropriate and appreciated.

– Eva Shaw, Ph. D

Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens
5600 E. Broad St., Columbus, OH 43213
(614) 866-0200