Student Wellbeing Service
‘You will get it wrong … but you can’t make it worse’: 16 ways to talk to people who are grieving
Article sourced from The Guardian
So, where do your parents live?”
Um … Your heart pauses for a second. You clench your drink. You take a breath in …
Oh, they’re still looking at you – you haven’t said anything yet. So … yeah … Should you go into it? Where are you? Should you lie? How bad is today? Can you speak the truth without your voice cracking? Are they in the club? Would they notice if you ran away now? Yeah, so … It’s been too long. Just say something. Just start with the truth.
“Er, yeah. My mum lives in London.”
“And your dad?” (ALERT: You are in that conversation, this is not a drill. There’s nowhere left to go now.)“Oh, um, he’s – yeah, he’s dead. He died when I was 15.”
Oh, sorry. Erm, I didn’t know.”
“Ha, that’s OK it’s not your fault.”
“Ha! No! It isn’t!”
“You didn’t kill him!”
“Ha ha, no. Well, thanks Cariad, but I have to go away from you now. You’ve reminded me of my own mortality and I don’t like it.”
Cariad exits the bar feeling a little more griefy than she did earlier, and weirdly guilty about upsetting someone for bringing up her dead dad, who she didn’t actually bring up.
What does your dad do?
Where does your mum live?
How many children do you have?
How many brothers have you got?
How old is your sister now?
The questions we all innocently ask each other because we like to get a sense of who someone is when we meet them. Grievers enter a world of trying to negotiate how to tell people that their someone is … dead actually.
You don’t have to be in the club to know that we aren’t great at talking about death. The mere mention of the word makes shoulders tense, stomachs gurgle and palms sweat. I have seen people tie themselves in physical knots to avoid grief coming up in light conversation.
The social awkwardness we feel when talking about death comes, unsurprisingly, from a place of fear. That might be a fear of upsetting a griever, fear of not saying the “right” thing or making their day worse than it already is. And this leads to people avoiding the conversation, changing the subject, saying nothing at all (so weird), or making the sort of blundering, ill-thought-through comments that a griever has to get adept at handling. We will all die; we all know someone who has died – shouldn’t we have got good at talking about it by now?
After my dad died, my mum received an official letter addressed to him. But rather than retyping out who it was addressed to, they’d simply crossed out my dad’s name and written “DEAD” next to it, and then sent it to my mum. Incredible. Another time, someone said to me, after I first mentioned to her my dad was dead, that if her dad was dead she’d tell everyone because she was sure you’d get “so much attention” because of it. I stayed silent and changed the subject, as I had no idea how to unpick that one.
It’s OK to find it hard to talk about. It’s OK to feel frightened or nervous. It’s OK to get it wrong. What matters is that you try
We all have stories of the mad and hurtful things that have been said to us over the years. To the non-club members, I know it’s hard to walk into somewhere where you don’t understand the rules. This isn’t a blame game. In the long run, we can better help those grieving if we all admit that this is a heavy and awkwardly shaped rock that we’re trying to push uphill.
After my husband’s mum died, when we were in our 30s, I was suddenly faced with being the person who said the wrong things. I had spent so much of my life being in grief, being the one annoyed at other people’s stupid comments, rolling my eyes at their attempts to deal with my grief, that I didn’t know any better. With my mother-in-law’s death, I learned that it isn’t any easier on the opposite bank. Yes, less painful – I wasn’t in grief’s harsh glare. But I was watching someone I loved in pain, and it was awful. I was consistently getting it wrong despite knowing him best, despite being experienced with grief.
Of course, part of my frustration was that I wanted to take the pain from him, but I couldn’t. One day I realised that everything I was doing to “help” my husband wasn’t working. He didn’t want to talk about it. He was dealing with grief very differently to me. Of course he was. He wasn’t a teenager, his relationship with his dead parent was different from mine. When I acknowledged this, I could finally see that he just needed to be heard. He didn’t need to scream about it, or chat; he simply needed someone to sit quietly with him. Each grief is personal.
The only way I learned how different all griefs were was by talking to people.
After starting griefcast, I came to realise that there were certain griefs that frightened me. I could talk about dead parents until the zombies rose up. But children dying? That was terrifying. Suddenly I had nothing to say at all. Just like the people I’d rolled my eyes at for years, here I was desperate not to talk about death, because I was scared.
Speaking to writer Jayson Greene was one of the hardest conversations about grief I’ve had. In 2015 his daughter, Greta, was killed in an accident in New York when she was two. She was sitting with her grandmother on a bench when a piece of masonry fell off a building and landed on her. Discussing this death felt dangerous – that even talking about it was somehow dangerous to my children, as if it was catching – a completely unjust and irrational feeling, but a reminder that the urge to run away from death is pretty universal.
"A griever can name and remember everyone who tried, who fought through their own uncomfortableness to reach out"
I’ve had so many people try to get it “right” when talking to me. My favourite reaction was from the late, great Ken Campbell, a very eccentric performer and writer I was working with many years ago. One day he asked me, “Where’s your dad then?” My cheeks flushed. Ken wasn’t known for his empathy. “Oh he’s … dead,” I said. What the hell was he going to say to me now? He paused and looked wistful and let out a snort, “Huh, yeah, they have a habit of doing that, dads.” I laughed, gratefully. He hadn’t changed the subject, he hadn’t shamed me. He’d sat with me, briefly, in grief. “Yep, that sounds shit.” I was always very grateful for that answer.
It’s OK to find it hard to talk about death. It’s OK to feel frightened or nervous. It’s OK to get it wrong. What matters is that you try. We need to get better at being uncomfortable, at not knowing what to say and admitting that we’re scared. It isn’t easy to help someone in grief. But only when we attempt (and possibly fail) to help, will we learn what’s needed.
Here’s a small and unfinished and by no means definitive (remember: all griefs are different) map to lead you and the person you love through the maelstrom of grief.
You will get it wrong
Yes, I’ve said it already but I’m saying it again because everyone always thinks, “Oh, but not me, I’m really sensitive, I will definitely not say anything stupid.” This is a reminder that even if you are the softest, most adaptable, memory-foam-mattress of a friend, you will one day get it wrong. Grief rips your skin off and leaves muscle and tissue open to the air. Your words don’t land on a thick skin, they sink into sinews and bump into bones. It hurts when it’s wrong, yet it’s hard to get it right. Because you can’t. So, always have at the ready: “I’m sorry if I get this wrong … ” “I want to help, but I’m not sure how, but I want you to know I’m here … ” “I think I may have been insensitive when we were talking, I’m so sorry … ”
You can’t make it worse
Anything you say may hurt us, but it will never hurt as much as the fact that THEY ARE DEAD. The worst has already happened. Please always remember this when talking to someone grieving. If they start to cry or seem sad or upset – they are. They are in pain. That’s OK. They loved someone and now they’re dead. You can bumble and stumble and make it uncomfortable, but you CANNOT make it worse. You can’t redead the dead. Aim not for perfection but presence.
So, just try …
A griever can name and remember everyone who tried, who didn’t give up on them, who fought through their own uncomfortableness to try to reach out.
Your grief is not their grief
It took me a while to accept that the grief of losing a parent didn’t trump everything. My pain was so large and so raw that if someone told me they were sad about a dog or a grandparent or even, I’ll be honest, a friend, I didn’t understand. I didn’t see anything but my grief for many years because my pain was so painful. Surely there was no pain that could beat it?
The change came when I listened to people on the podcast. I realised that grief was grief, that if you had a relationship with them, and they died, you grieved for them. That’s it, really. Whether that’s a dad, mum, sister, brother, uncle, grandma, friend, colleague, cat, dog, it’s grief. There’s no grief hierarchy: whatever your pain, it’s worth a place, worth a conversation.
This is particularly pertinent when it comes to talking about miscarriage or early pregnancy loss. A common reaction is to ask how many weeks someone was when they lost their pregnancy, as if a number can set a value on their grief. They were pregnant, they worked out the due date in their heads, they imagined a future, they are grieving.
Perhaps you too have heard a grief story and done the grief maths and thought, “Well that doesn’t sound too bad/too early/too hard/too painful/they were old/you did know they were ill/it was sudden … ” That’s OK, you are allowed to think these things, it doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s what you do with the judgment that counts. Know that you may not understand their grief, but if they are feeling it, it’s real.
Don’t ask – do
We place too much pressure on the bereaved to provide the answers. “If there is anything I can do … ” doesn’t help. When you’ve been bereaved your head is soup, you don’t know which way is up. Someone has died, you don’t know what you want or need. If you want to win massive club points, just do.
"What do they need doing? Bin emptying? Food brought round? Kids picked up? Doing those things without asking is a priceless act of kindness"
If they are in full practical mode, just wanting to deal with all the sadmin – calling banks, lawyers, insurance companies – can you help with that? Look at their house, what do they need doing? Bin emptying? Food brought round? Kids picked up? Teabags topped up? Enough digestives in the tin for all the visitors? There are so many little things you can do when someone is in crisis. Doing them without asking is a priceless act of kindness.
(Pro tip: don’t ask, “Do you want tea?” Just put the kettle on and make it. Wash your mug up afterwards for bonus points.)
You’re a supporting role – not the lead
You can cry a bit, in solidarity, but wailing that you really loved their person too means they’ll have to comfort you. Your feelings are valid, but not as valid as the person bereaved right now. They are the focus, and if you feel upset, find someone (not them) to help you with your feelings. It’s their closeup, and your job is to make sure the camera stays on their shot.
How are you today?
The dreaded, “How are you?” is too much for most grievers to bear. How am I? Awful? Lost? Afraid? It’s too big a question to answer. “How are you today?” is the magic friend you need. Pinpoint your question to make it easier.
Also, be wary of, “I’m sorry for your loss,” the immortal phrase most grievers are faced with after the initial death. I don’t mind it, it’s all we have sometimes, but it is one of the most complained-about phrases I have come across. For me, it does something, but it can’t just be a towel to mop up the awkward mess: it needs to be meant.
Silence really has no excuse. Send a card, send a text, a DM, a WhatsApp, an email. Let them know you’re there. Then stay in contact. Text “Thinking of you” when you remember them. It’s such an easy way to remind someone that they’re not alone.
Be OK being ignored
Someone is now permanently lost to them, so they might, in turn, need to ignore you. Wait. Be patient. After the first year, remind them they’ve survived.
You don’t need all the details
I know every bit of you wants to find out what happened. That’s human. But do you need to know everything? Do they want to talk about it? Some people find it very painful to talk about the details of a death, especially if it is recent. As you practise having these conversations, think to yourself, “Why am I asking? Is it to help them?”
"They may be in shock. They may take years to realise how much it affected them. You can’t fix them, but you can let it be known that you care"
During the pandemic, Covid-19 grievers have spoken to me of their pain at being quizzed about their loved ones’ illnesses. “Did they really have it when they died?” “Had they been tested?” “Was that what they actually died of?”
These questions are not really about their person – they are about the questioner’s fears. How much better would it have been if they had said, “God I’m so sorry. That sounds so hard, what was their name? What were they like? I would love you to tell me more about them if you ever feel ready.”
Grief looks different every time
They might be smiling, laughing, back at work, on holiday, posting selfies, but they’re probably not “fine”. They might not be awful, they might be doing OK – but it helps to remember that grief is a visitor, it comes and goes. Just because you see a picture of a person choosing to present themselves as unaffected, it doesn’t mean they are. It might just mean that’s what they’re needing to do to survive.
Deaths that are wrapped in tragedy or traumatic events aren’t just grief: they are trauma and grief combined. Suicide can be very frightening to talk about if you have no experience of it. The stigma for many suffering grief from suicide remains, but that does not mean the conversation should be closed down. It is recommended by Samaritans that when it comes to talking about suicide, you do not need the details, you do not need to ask how it was done. But you can ask the griever about the person they lost because the suicide shouldn’t define that person’s whole life.
When someone has made the choice not to see someone for many years, it can be easy to rationalise that their grief will be minimised. If they didn’t get on with that person, perhaps they won’t be so sad? We may wonder this because we often look to apply logic to grief, so once we have all the parts of the equation, we can place a value on how much grief we think they should have. Grief doesn’t come with a checklist. You can easily be estranged and still mourn their loss; you can hate them and still suffer. The idea that you only deserve to grieve for someone you loved or liked is too simplistic.
Before they’ve died
The grief that can occur before someone dies, perhaps due to estrangement or even a degenerative disease such as dementia, is called anticipatory grief. You may begin grieving for someone as soon as they are diagnosed or if they start losing who they are due to illness. For some people, that can mean they’ve already been through a large part of the grieving process; for others, it’s not that simple. Anticipatory grief doesn’t protect you from grief around the actual death; it may still come crashing towards you, after years of knowing that moment is coming. Or it may mean that when death finally arrives, there is a relief. Neither is wrong, there is only grief.
Be there for the long haul
After a while, people think you’re fine, when you’re not. Birthdays, Christmas, spring flowers … all these things must be faced without that person.
Take a griever out, send a card, mention what they’ve been through, say the name of their person. Make a note in your diary of the death anniversary. Even just the month. A year later, message them: “Hope April is OK, know it’s a tough month.” Work out when six months will be and text them then, too. The power of remembering can’t be overestimated.
Don’t give up …
On them. On hope for the future, on the idea that one day it will get easier. Stay fast if you can. They may be in shock. They may take years to realise how much it affected them. You can’t save them, you can’t fix them, but you can let it be known that you care. There is no escaping the empty tunnel you’re both walking into – just remember only you can see the light at the end of it. They can’t yet. Keep walking.
Best wishes, The Wellbeing Team