Writer’s note: I originally penned this four months ago in December as part of my Merry Blogmas series. I never shared it, though, and recently revisited and revised it for publication.
As I approach my eighth year as a motherless daughter, I am confident in saying that I have learned much about the grieving process. There is still much that I do not know or understand, but I am at a point in my life where I am comfortable and willing to share my knowledge and experiences in the hopes of helping someone else who stands where I have already stood on this road.
Between the years of 2007 and 2013, I lost my mom, my remaining three grandparents, and my stand-in mom (my best friend’s mom). Even though I have encountered all this loss within such a short timeframe, I am fully aware that it is difficult to find the right words to say to someone who is grieving. You want to be a good friend and express condolences, and I understand that.
Allow me to be blunt for a moment, though.
There are things I absolutely will not say to a person who has lost someone, and you shouldn’t say them either.
These are common phrases that were said to me after my mom’s passing — whether it be immediately after or through the years following her death.
“It will get easier with time”
Possibly the most common words to say to someone who has lost a loved one, but not necessarily the most truthful. Not only is it not factual, but it is a hollow and inconsiderate statement.
What exactly is the “it” that supposedly gets easier? The pain of losing someone close to you doesn’t just dissolve over time — time is not magic and does not have healing powers. That hurt always lives inside of a person. You just learn how to manage grief in a way that suits you best.
For nearly a decade now, I have learned how to live with a constant feeling that something is missing. That is because something actually is missing from my life, and that empty feeling has never gone away or gotten “easier.” But it is managed.
“But you still have me”
This is one that I get occasionally if I am having a difficult day missing my mom and vocalize that to someone close to me. I got it a lot when Justin and I became engaged
and I struggled heavily with my mom not being here to enjoy this time with me.
Please, do not remind a person that even though they’ve lost someone, they still have you. The person you are speaking to does not need a reminder that you are still in their life.
Furthermore, if someone is pouring out their heart to you and opening up about their feelings toward losing a loved one, do you realize how insensitive it is to follow that up with, “But you still have me?”
You do not replace the person they are missing, and your presence does not fill the absence of another human.
Yes, I am thankful for the people I do have in my life, and I try not to focus on what’s missing. However, I do miss my mom, but me missing her does not mean that I value someone else’s presence any less. It simply means that I wish my mom could be here for life’s big moments, and the fact the she is not sometimes makes me sad. And I have the right to be sad about that.
“I know exactly how you feel, I lost … “
One of the most annoying things people said to me after my mom died was that they knew what I was going through because they lost their grandma or aunt or some other family member.
I respect that folks were trying to reach out, offer kind words, and let me know they were available if I needed to talk. Believe me, I am grateful for those people who took the time to contact me; it truly was a kind a gesture.
But please, for the love of everything pure in this world, never tell someone that you know what they’re experiencing by equating your loss to theirs. In truth, you have absolutely no idea what they are going through because losing a loved one is an individualized experience.
Even when my very best friend lost her mom three months after my mom died, I refused to say, “I know what you’re going through,” because the way she lost her mom was vastly different from the way I lost mine. We knew my mom’s passing was imminent and I got the chance to tell her bye and spend her last few days at her side — that did not make her death any easier — but my best friend did not get any of that. Her mom died abruptly, without any warning, while my friend was away at college. So, no, I don’t know exactly what she was feeling.
Instead of any of the above, what I usually say is some iteration of this: “I am sorry for your loss. I know this is where people like to say ‘I know what you’re going through,’ but I am not going to say that because I don’t know what you’re feeling. Instead, I offer you my ear if you need to talk, and I mean that. I am a great listener and want to hear whatever you want to say. Sometimes just saying your feelings out loud to someone who wants to listen is helpful. Whatever you need, I am here.”
Helping someone grieve is a tricky thing. This list is by no means meant to offend anyone, but it is meant to help people think about what they say to a person who is suffering a loss.
As someone who has been on the receiving end of all of the above statements on more than one occasion, I am not offended when I hear these things. They just feel like empty phrases, and I believe there are better ways to communicate to someone that you care about them and their loss.