Conversations around death and loss can be highly sensitive and awkward — but nonetheless, incredibly important.
Our society often shys away from this topic out of fear, embarrassment and discomfort which in turn can create increased feelings of isolation, loneliness and distress for survivors.
I had a really clarifying moment this past weekend. Saturday marked the five year anniversay of when my friend died by suicide. It was a hard and painful day which also meant I was then entering the fifth year without her in my life. The night before that day, I told my darling boyfriend (who I love so much) that it would be a particularly heavy day for me and, knowing this, I could use some extra love. I needed him to be even more attentive and in tune with my emotions than usual. — Vocalizing my personal needs with my trauma has been a long journey and I am proud of the internal work I have done to get here — I also feel really grateful to be with someone who wants to hear my needs.
So the next day I woke up, journaled, and honored my emotions and my heart’s feelings, holding my dear friend’s life and love close in my heart but definitely feeling sad and emotional knowing the particular date’s significance. Late in the afternoon, my sweet boy hadn’t said anything or checked in with me once. I had thought at this point he would have given me a hug and lent a hand/heart to me in my time of grief, but as of 3:00 there was no mention. In this absence, I was suddenly filled with thoughts of “is it too much of a burden to want someone to be there with me? Does my story make it too hard for someone to love me?” I had self-stigmatized due to his lack of communication, thinking he didn’t want to hear where I was, rather than he didn’t know how to be there for me. So finally, I told him “hey you know it’s okay to ask me how I’m doing”.
He quickly shared that he had been thinking about me and what the day represented but had rationalized it in his mind, since I had been smiling and hadn’t brought it up myself. Therefore, he thought, I must have been feeling happy and didn’t want to talk about it. While, in fact, the opposite was true; I had been thinking about her and my pain the whole day and feeling rather lonely and isolated in my grief and loss.
His not knowing what to say or how to go about addressing the weight of the day had paralyzed him in saying anything, therefore leaving me feeling even more alone with my sadness and loss.
I know he cares deeply about me, about where my heart and head is and how I am doing in general. However, silence does not actively show this to me — especially in times when that extra sign of care goes a long way.
As someone with trauma, I’d prefer an awkward fumble in an attempt to show compassion rather than silence. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but when someone expresses that they care, it means the world to me
I love my boyfriend and this is in no way an attack on him — in fact, he quickly heard my words and understood how his silence had hurt me and changed his actions pretty immediately. Instead, this conversation reiterated to me that far too many people are unsure of what to do in the face of loss, and often say and do nothing. This in turn can hurt and isolate the ones who need connection the most. In my opinion, it is always better to say something than nothing at all. Even if it may feel awkward or uncomfortable.
My two cents: no matter how awkward and jumbled you may feel or sound around someone who is grieving or experiencing loss, saying something is better than not saying anything at all. An awkward attempt at offering love and support is much more appreciated and respected than being around people who care for you but having them say nothing at all. The simple act of reaching out offers a gentle reminder to someone that they’re not alone, they don’t have to carry the pain alone and that their sorrow is seen and real — therefore, it deserves to take up space if that’s what someone needs in that moment to heal. Adversely, someone might just need to cry. Tears should not be shied away from; they are an opening for healing and connection, and just because someone is sad doesn’t mean they want to be alone. But with this in mind, it is important to not assume what someone needs. This goes both ways: don’t assume someone wants space and time to be alone, while also don’t assume that someone wants to be hugged and talked with about their emotions. That is why a simple gesture such as: “ I just want you to know I’m here for you, if you want to talk or just share space with someone, I’m here” can go a long way. It offers that individual the space to let someone in and be held while it also gives them the opportunity to say no, they don’t want company. Regardless, they can be reminded that they’re seen and heard. The trick is not to be offended by their choice — remember, it’s not about you.
Here are some suggestions for what to say when faced with someone who is teary-eyed or someone who is experiencing loss. But first, I want to recognize that it is also okay to say that you don’t know what to say but either way you are there for them.
Okay now to the suggestions:
- “I just want you to know I’m here for you, if you want to talk or just share space with someone, I’m here”
- “I really don’t know what to say but I just want you to know that I see you and want you to know you’re not alone”
- “Would you like a hug?”( post COVID-19 times duhhh) – and if someone says no that’s not a personal insult but instead a sign that they’re comfortable letting you in on what they need.
- “I don’t know what you’re going through but nonetheless I’m here to give you love. Let me know what you need.”
- “I am holding you in my heart and am always just a text or phone call away”
- Another option would be to cook or bake something for them, or help them clean their space. Sometimes actions can speak louder than words .
When in doubt say something — anything. Don’t shy away from this topic due to your own discomfort. Know that your awkward attempt just might help someone remember they are not alone and that they are seen.