I mentioned to a friend that, after receiving notification of my mate’s death, few people from a certain online group sent an acknowledgement, and she said perhaps it was because they did not know what to say. This is probably true. Most comments posted to me on the various threads began with: “I don’t know what to say.” Of course, being writers, these people followed that statement with very touching responses, but I also received touching remarks from non-writers. To be honest, all responses mean a lot to me — grief is such an isolating experience, that any indication of concern helps remind me that people do care, that perhaps I’m not totally alone after all.
If you cannot think of anything eloquent to say in the face of another’s grief, say something simple. Say, “I’m sorry.” Say, “I’m thinking about you.” Say, “My heart goes out to you.” Say, “I shed tears for you.” And there is always the standard, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”
If you knew the deceased, talk about him. The bereaved (a terrible word, so namby-pamby and doesn’t really connote how truly bereft one is after such a loss) will find comfort in your memories. If you didn’t know him, you can talk about your own experiences with the death of a loved one, though be aware that grief piled upon grief might be a bit overwhelming for the one left behind. Despite that, the stories people share with me make me realize that though the pain seems impossible to live through, it will eventually become tolerable. At least, I hope it will.
Many people told me to “hang in there,” but although well-meaning it is not, perhaps, the best thing to say to someone who is grieving. Depression is a part of the process, and “hanging in there” makes one wonder “hanging from what? And where?” (If you are one of those who used this expression, I hope I’m not hurting your feelings. Rest assured I took your words in the spirit offered, and was pleased that you thought of me.)
If you truly cannot find words of your own, share a poem that helped you get through your grief. Although grief is such a personal experience, the emotions portrayed in poetry are universal.
If you can’t think of something to say immediately, but eventually think of the perfect thing, say it then. It is never too late. Grief lasts a very long time. As the days, weeks, months pass, others forget, but the person who is grieving doesn’t. Any indication that you are thinking of her in her sorrow is comforting.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter what you say. Extending a bit of comfort, showing that you haven’t forgotten, showing that you care — those are the important things.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.