Recently I was a guest on The Kiss My Age Show podcast. The episode’s topic was the “invisibility” of women of a certain age. (Check the App Store or Google Play on your device for a podcast subscription. If you’re a mid-century modern or vintage woman, you’ll love these three co-hosts, their brisk banter, and the program. End of the serious plug.)
During the course of conversation, Julie Harris Walker, a co-host, asked me a question about helpful/appropriate things one might say to the recently bereaved. You know, that first or second encounter, either at the memorial service or later at the dry cleaners, Starbucks, the grocery store…
If you were to send a note (and NOT a Hallmark card that’s supposed to do the job for you because you don’t trust yourself to ad lib your way through your own genuine and personal thoughts), what might you say?
We’ve all felt dread at these situations. The ‘what if a thought moves from my mind and rolls out through my mouth like a gumball exiting a machine, makes no sense, or – perish the thought – leaves someone already feeling horrible, feeling worse. What if they dissolve into tears right in front of me?’
It’s a somewhat legit thought. Though generally speaking they probably already feel so destroyed it’s doubtful you could make them feel worse unless you dissed their loved one or somehow de-legitimized their grief.
Feel better now?
My policy and what I loved most when folks visited me was truth. The moment a friend owned their feelings of helplessness and awkwardness and said, “I have no idea what to say because this is so awful,” it lightened my burden. It took from me the feeling that I was supposed to make my guests comfortable with MY loss when I was reeling in unreality.
Let’s tell the truth. My life had blown up. To me it seemed bits of flesh were everywhere after the explosion. Kinda like a hard boiled egg left on the stove too long. I checked to be sure I wasn’t leaving a blood trail as I was sure I’d been disemboweled. I had no idea, literal or figurative, what my next move might be. I existed minute to minute because every breath was excruciating and I didn’t know if I had the strength to take another.
The truth? No one had any idea what to say, least of all me, and the willingness to own that out loud and hang with me anyway meant everything.
Those who didn’t allow their nervousness, unease, and awkwardness with my grief rule their willingness to be with me had my deepest gratitude. My husband’s suicide was 25 years ago. I’ve not forgotten the truthful exchanges. The courageous, life changing and healing, truthful exchanges.
Truth set the ground rules. We moved forward from those interactions feeling our way to the future together. Tentatively. Tenderly. Truthfully.
Please don’t for a minute think the discomfort you’re feeling at not knowing what to say registers on the cosmic pain scale. The weights are so inequivalent that the scale needle won’t even budge. Sorry. Your discomfort doesn’t count.
Get over yourself.
Take a chance on you. On your grieving loved one.
Tell the truth.
Everyone will be okay.