What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say
Words. Shock and fear overtake those who are experiencing loss or disease. Saying the wrong thing can cause them to avoid reaching out to others in a time when support can be extremely helpful. Be respectful of their situation.
Silence. Without words, so much can be said. Offering a hug or pat on the shoulder shows compassion and support. Just showing up to visit, to a funeral, or to a memorial event can be so supportive. Sending a note that lets them know you are thinking about them. People will remember you spending the most intangible thing with them, time. Your time is precious and will be appreciated because you made an effort.
Actions. People can show support through flowers, memorial donations, dinners, photos, offering a place to stay or helping clean.
I found a great article written in May 2010 in the NY Times by Jane E. Brody. See a portion of it below to see specific examples of what you can do, what to say and what not to say.
“Whether in a card, note, letter, phone message, hug or pat on the shoulder, some people seem to know instinctively how to show they care and will remember the deceased. What stands out most in these messages is their deeply personal quality. People who knew my husband in various walks of life (especially his advocacy for his beloved
and his career as a writer for the musical theater) saw him in ways that had escaped me, because I was too close to have their perspective. By sharing these details, they have rounded out my memories of a life shared and separate from his — memories I will cherish for the rest of my life. Prospect Park
What follow are a few examples of condolences that warmed my aching heart, made me smile and told me more about Richard and how he affected others than I had realized even after 43 years of marriage.
Lovely Things to Say and Do
Many of the writers talked about the kind of person Richard was; others recalled memorable times they spent with him. This letter, from an old friend, did both:
“Richard’s unique and puny sense of humor, his Felix-like behavior as he patrolled
, his wonderful, expressive and profoundly in-touch words and lyrics will be greatly missed. I so enjoyed the times we spent together, riding bikes down Ocean Parkway and picnicking near Plum Beach, enjoying tastings in your home.” Prospect Park
Brooklyn neighbor struck a similar note: “I loved his quiet humor and his deep analysis of whatever situations we discussed. His death is a loss to the music world, to , and to all whose lives he touched.” Prospect Park
And this, from another old friend: “He was totally thrilled and very funny on the subject of how the boy from
Minnesota and the girl from managed to come together. I remember him telling me how easy he found it to be married, at least to you.” New York City
Others took time to recall how Richard had helped them. “He taught me how important it is to reach out and acknowledge other people when they’ve made an impact on you,” wrote a very new friend. “However briefly, however late in life, he made a large impact on me.” A colleague wrote: “I remember specifically talking to him about grudges and how he told me to drop them. Some of the best advice I’ve ever taken.”
Some of the messages read like character sketches. From a writer of musicals, who sent a poem celebrating Richard’s contribution to her career: “He was one of the most fully realized people I’ve ever met. Opinionated, blunt, droll, smart, dour, but yet so gentle and emotional — all rolled up in that wonderful Swedish package of angst.”
And from a perceptive young friend: “He could be talkative, jovial and wonderfully humorous, with a quick wit and infectious laugh. He could be calm and reflective, letting annoyances pass graciously or trying to temper someone else’s bad disposition. Other times he had no patience for bad behavior, speeches or hubris, providing a quick retort or challenge that left the speaker thoughtful, humbled or at least less bold.”
Others who may have known Richard less well nonetheless found things to say that while recognizing the pain of loss reflected the value of a life well lived. Frank H. T. Rhodes, president emeritus of Cornell University, my alma mater, wrote: “Our mortality is as much an enigma as it is a certainty. Living generously, intelligently and faithfully, as you and Richard have done, give life rich purpose and meaning.”
The dean of my college, Susan A. Henry, wrote after reading more than 200 blog posts from my readers: “I know you will continue to hear many wonderful stories about him during the coming days and weeks and hope you will take pride and comfort in these many reminders of the profound impact he had on those whose lives he touched.”
Jilly Stephens, the executive director of City Harvest, a favorite charity of Richard’s that distributes food that would otherwise be wasted to New Yorkers who need it, noted that he “spoke about growing up in the Great Depression and understood what it can be like for a child to grow up in difficult circumstances, sometimes without enough to eat.”
Many readers didn’t know Richard at all, yet offered me comfort and support. Some sent books that had proved helpful to others, like “The Comfort Book,” by Jane Seskin (Tallfellow Press), “Afterwords,” by Ellen Steinbaum (Blue Unicorn Press), “A Time to Grieve,” by Carol Staudacher (HarperOne), “Solace,” by Roberta Temes (Amacom), and “Living When a Loved One Has Died,” by Rabbi Earl A. Grollman (Beacon Press).
Several neighbors urged me to call on them for any help they could provide, like taking out the garbage, lifting heavy objects and moving my car for street cleaning.
As Dr. Temes, a psychotherapist in
, advises the bereaved: “This is the time when it is perfectly O.K. to use people. You are using their good will to help yourself function. They benefit because it’s a joy to help someone, while you benefit because it’s a relief to know there is someone nearby on whom you can rely.” Scotch Plains, N.J.
Fortunately, no one (not yet, at least) has said to me, “Surely, you’ll meet someone else.” Nor has anyone offered to introduce me to a likely prospect.
When I complained about coming home to an empty house, however, I was not offended by the suggestion that perhaps I should get a dog. Thankfully, though, no one has said, “I know how you feel — my dog died last year,” as if the loss of a pet, however loved, is comparable to the loss of a person.
Many caring people have cautioned me to take care of myself — to be sure to eat well and exercise regularly — but thankfully no one has told me how to grieve. As Rabbi Grollman wrote in his book of poems:
There is no way to predict
how you will feel.
The reactions of grief are
not like recipes,
with given ingredients,
and certain results.
Each person mourns in a
I know through these lessons that I will do a better job myself when expressing sympathy to someone who has lost a loved one. I hope you will too when you find yourself wondering what to do or say to someone who is grieving.”
What to say when you don’t know what to say is a tough topic and as the poem above notes, there is no way to predict how anyone will feel. To speak with a counselor don’t hesitate to call for support for you or for tips on how to support someone else. Please contact me or Hospice of Southern Illinois with any other hospice questions you have at 618.235.1703. We will be happy to take the time to get your questions answered. Remember, life is about how you live!
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Southern Illinois is here to teach you what hospice is, what we are about, and what we can do for you and your loved ones! No one has to go through the dying process alone. Hospice of Southern Illinois can help!
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My name is
Christine Juehne, and I have worked as a community educator for four years at Hospice of Southern Illinois, a member of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO). I will be your hospice guru answering questions, covering stories, and informing you about all hospice topics. I welcome you to our blog! Follow our journey to stay committed to our mission, enhance the quality of life for individuals and their loved ones touched by a terminal illness! If you have further questions about Hospice of Southern Illinois or general hospice questions please feel free to call 618-235-1703 or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org!