Most problems have a foreseeable solution to work toward. If you have a phobia of heights, there’s a good chance therapy can reduce, or even reverse it. If you lose a job, it can be devastating, but you can set about the task of finding a new one. Death isn’t like that. When someone dies, it is permanent.
If you are on the outside looking in on someone who has experienced a death, especially if you haven’t lost anyone emotionally close to you, you may think the best thing is to help them get back to normal, help them find their old way of living. Even with the most compassionate of intentions, still, one cannot fix death. It is irreversible and it changes things.
I have heard people describe losing someone emotionally close to them as if they had walked through a door, and on the other side, there was a completely new world to navigate. You cannot go back through, and everything seems different. Things look, feel, smell, and sound differently. Nothing is in the right place. So, it isn’t so much about getting over and on with it, as it is learning to live in new kind of world, in a new and different way.
For years the mental health community stood by the idea begun by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying, that there were linear stages to grief, and that if we were diligent with our “Grief Work” then we would complete the stages and be healed. A worthy goal.
But Kübler-Ross was originally talking about the stages people go through when they themselves are dying, and she never really said they were linear. She was a pioneer in the hospice movement. But, the stretch to apply these stages to bereavement was largely due to readership demand. There were no real studies that showed linear stages for bereavement. Some studies done to document them, have come up nil (1). The concept of grief stages has evolved. It is useful when used as a tool for understanding some possible responses to loss, but not as a prescribed path, even according to David Kessler, who co-authored On Grief and Grieving, Kübler-Ross’ second book (2). Alan Wolfelt, who advocates the idea of “companioning” a person through their loss, rather than “working through” grief stages, has said that Kübler-Ross regretted, and recanted, using the word “stages,” before she herself died in 2004.
I can see why. It isn’t as easy as five stages, and it’s a lot of pressure on the bereaved. They wonder why they still get sad; they blame themselves for being slow to finish the steps. Since people are unique, and each relationship is different, we all grieve in our own way (3), and, unfortunately, there is no predictable timeline. More commonly, people have good days and bad days. Anniversaries, certain places, seasons, finding little things around the house unexpectedly, can all reawaken sad or angry feelings, even years later. And then some days are so beautiful, you remember all the good things you experienced, you feel so blessed to have known the person, and you feel compelled to live your life fully, as a tribute. Both of these kinds of days can hit you at any time. Over time, there are more of the good days.
Below is my personal list of things that aren’t helpful when someone is grieving.
- Don’t talk about your dog. It is so sad to lose a dog. I myself have. It is a real loss. But bringing this up when someone has lost their toddler, or their twin sister, doesn’t help.
- Don’t talk about how there is a reason for everything, or it was God’s will. That’s just confusing, even for people of faith. Every death feels sudden and unfair. People who are grieving need God on their side more than ever.
- Don’t ignore it. Especially after a while, the bereaved may not mention their loss, because they don’t want you to feel uncomfortable. But, if you knew their loved one, it’s okay to say you miss them too, or to relay a story every so often. Ignoring makes people feel isolated.
- Don’t tell them to be strong, move on, let them go. They would if they could. It just isn’t that simple. Some days are great. Some are not. Grief isn’t a kind of deficiency.
- Don’t try to fix it. This one isn’t fixable. It will just make you frustrated, which doesn’t help them. Usually, the most helpful thing to do is just hang out with them, listen, and share new experiences.
- Don’t say, “You can have another child,” or “You can adopt,” or “At least you have two more children.” Even if that’s true, they are grieving a real person who was sadly lost. No one can replace that one precious baby.
- Don’t make their name taboo. Unless there is a specific cultural norm not to, call their loved one by name. In this moment now, let it still be heard.
| The Best Things to Say to Someone in Grief
1. Beyond normality in the study of bereavement: Heterogeneity in depression outcomes following loss in older adults Social Science & Medicine, Volume 74, Issue 12, Pages 1987-1994 Isaac R. Galatzer-Levy, George A. Bonanno