What to Say (and Not Say) When Someone Is Grieving or Ill
The author with her family
So how do we know what to say and what not to say? I can speak from experience because I've heard, (and not heard) it all. I recently underwent a life-saving double lung transplant, my saving grace after a lifetime of chronic progressive disease. I've spent a good portion of my life sick, hospitalized and fighting for my life. I've lost friends who no longer seemed to be able to cope with my reality, yet I've also gained new people in my life whose words and support helped to lift me out of the darkest of times. I know that it can be difficult to find the right thing to say, and I have even been in the position myself where what I meant to say is not actually what I ended up saying. I still mentally beat myself up for it, incredulously thinking back to the exchange and remembering how hard it was to articulate how sorry I felt in the presence of such immense loss and suffering.
However, people are understanding and can easily forgive slip-ups when they themselves are probably finding it difficult to form the right thought. But choosing to ignore the situation altogether leaves an everlasting impression, a tarnishing display of insensitivity and your relationship can become forever tainted because of it.
Right before my transplant, I spent four consecutive months in the hospital and separated from my children and family. I am so grateful to every single person who reached out with messages of love and hope, well wishes and encouragement. While they didn't change my reality, they cushioned the blow of the nightmare I was living. But just like some messages brought a smile to my face, some also hurt, and I was genuinely surprised by the insensitivity and lack of awareness in some. Did they not care? Did they not realize how self absorbed they sounded? I had to get to the point of verbally reminding myself that in actuality, they most likely truly didn't even realize that what they were doing and saying was hurtful. It wasn't intentional.
Lauren's book of poems The Sky Cracked Open
I was stuck in the hospital eating bad food for every meal, and one person constantly sent me photos of delicious looking food, displays of vibrant farmers market stands and picnics in beautiful sunny weather. Didn't they realize that those photos would only make me yearn for a life I was not fortunate enough to be living? I couldn't believe it. I didn't know what to say or how to respond. I could either let it eat away at me, making me bitter and annoyed, or I could try to help them and others through my experience. So if you find yourself needing to provide support but struggling to find the right way to say it, maybe this list can be of service.
- Don't pretend to know what they are going through, unless you quite literally have gone through the exact same thing. The "I can imagines." Just don't. The pain they are incurring is their own and truthfully, you can't imagine unless it happens to you. Turn that can into can't and suddenly you seem much more caring and understanding — acknowledging that you can't imagine what they are going through, but you are there for them nonetheless.
- Don't compare their grief or struggles to your own, even if you've had similar experiences. If you bear the same cross, chances are the person will look to you for guidance. Let them come to you when they are ready, and in the meantime, just be a pillar of support letting them lean on you for strength.
- Don't boast about your good fortunes during their time of despair. There is plenty of time once they get back on their feet to catch up, so for now, let them vent if they need to and keep your own life's recap to pleasantries. Reminisce about the good times you've shared together to hopefully help them focus on the good.
- A death is one of the most difficult experiences someone can go through. Simple yet supportive words like, "I'm so sorry for your loss, my thoughts are with you and your family during this time and I'm here no matter what you need," is exactly what someone needs to hear without too much to process. And after that, really follow through. Check on them. Text them to say you are thinking of them. Offer to bring coffee or food, even just to leave it outside their door. Sometimes just trying to formulate a simple "hello" can be too much for the one grieving, so just knowing that a friend is there without commitment can be just what they need.
- It's easy to have all the right words when life is great, but it's how we act when the chips are down that can really define our character. When we take the oath of friendship, unspeakable vows of mutual trust and support are exchanged, especially when the going gets tough. And when that time comes, it's important to remember that the right words are a vital factor in letting someone we care about feel a little less alone.
Lauren Molasky Fierst is a mother of two young children, recently married, a designer/fashion blogger, a Cystic Fibrosis warrior, and after 120+ days in the hospital, successfully received a double lung transplant just a few weeks ago! Inspired by the love of her nightly routine of poetry readings with her children, Lauren published a beautiful collection of whimsical poems and illustrations titled The Sky Cracked Open. The book features 65 poems (a nod to "65 Roses," a nickname for CF) and a portion of the proceeds are donated to finding a cure.
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