The phrase “I’m sorry for your loss” has taken some hits lately. Some people feel it lacks empathy and true comfort. I find it fine. It’s neutral. For me it says, “I feel sorrow that you are feeling sorrow.” Nothing is more empathetic than that. As for comfort, truly nothing brings comfort to someone actively grieving. The best we can do as supporters is to do no harm.
For me, the statement “I know how you feel” is the phrase that is most harmful. It lacks empathy of any sort. Just because you have suffered a similar loss does not give you any indication what another is feeling in the wake of their loss.
Their pain is directly related to the last words shared or not shared. To dreams left unlived. To a lifetime of memories you aren’t privy too. It rests upon years of building a relationship or tearing it down. It was created in the hours of laughter or tears shared. Their pain is proportionate to their future as well as their past. It is known by one person and one person alone, them.
When you say “I know how you feel” you take the focus of the conversation. It becomes about you. Even if it isn’t followed by “I lost my so and so a few years ago and I …..” It takes the person out of their present day loss experience by deciding how to respond to you. They are forced to choose between being polite by acknowledging your past loss, or go off on your face by telling you the truth, “you don’t know how I feel!”
Neither of which is comforting.
I don’t care if you’ve lived next door to someone for your whole life and their dad just died and your dad died awhile ago. You don’t know how they feel. You can ONLY know how you felt when your dad died. That’s it and that does not give you insight into anyone else’s grief. It doesn’t even give you insight into how your siblings felt at the loss of your dad!!!
Everyone’s grief is unique, like their fingerprints.
What To Say Instead
- I can’t imagine how you are feeling right now.
- I’m here.
- Can I get you anything?
- I’ve known loss, so if you need me to hold your hand, here’s my hand.
- Would you like to go get some air?
- I understand. (Use this sparingly and without explanation because this can be heard as “I know…”)
Remember that in times of someone’s grief what is most important is your presence.
I know so many people who have taken the stance of not going to funerals, because they don’t know what to say, they are uncomfortable, they don’t ‘do sad’, and about a hundred other justifications. Not going to funerals is denying the healing power of presence. It is the presence that is most needed by the bereaved. To be surrounded by people who love you, even when they didn’t know/love the one who died is part of the healing process. To do that for others is part of the human process. Consider it a social contract.
What people need most at funerals is to be surrounded by love. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be awkward, but it probably will be. Do it anyway.
I don’t remember all the people that ever came to all the funerals of my loved ones. I do remember those I wanted to come, but didn’t. I also remember the ones who came whom I didn’t expect to come.
There are times when relationships have been so complicated that the family makes the services private. Respect that. Don’t barge in anyway. Just make a point to show up for your friend/loved one in some other way that shares your presence.
Someone recently said, ‘I have given up going to the funerals of people who won’t come to mine.’
Do you see funerals as something for the deceased or the bereaved? They are for both. The energy raised at a funeral (including visitations and wakes) assists the deceased in their journey through the veil to the other side. Literally, the love lifts them up.
It does the same for the bereaved. The energy raised also holds them up in this time of brokenness in their life. It surrounds them with a blanket of love that will help against the cold winds of grief. Each person who ‘pays their respects’ or offers condolences lends a stitch to this blanket. This blanket stays with them after the crowds have dispersed and life has to resume. It covers them when they are alone at night.
Pay it forward. Go to the funerals of those who won’t come to yours, because their loved ones might come to yours to support the ones you love.
Just don’t say, “I know how you feel”.