Last month I wrote about the power of responding to people in grief with memories.
So many of us don’t know what to say to a grieving person and even if we do manage to say something as simple as “I’m so sorry,” very often our discomfort makes us feel the need to keep speaking and, if we’re not careful, our rambling can lead us into dangerous words.
One of the worst things we can say to someone in grief is a phrase that starts with “At least …” For example,
At least he had a long life … (most families will tell you that it still wasn’t long enough for them).
At least you had time to prepare yourself … (almost anyone who has lost a loved one to a prolonged illness will still tell you that even though they knew the death was coming, there was no way to prepare for what it would feel like when their loved one actually died).
At least you have other children … (this one I really can’t handle, anyone who can say something like this really has no business speaking. And yes, people have said this).
These phrases diminish the significance of the loss and the grief of the survivors. It’s like saying, “you shouldn’t be that sad” and it’s a pretty devastating thing to say.
If you’re interested in the science of why these “at least” phrases are so terrible, look no further then this brilliant short by Brené Brown:
Sadly, all of those “condolences” have been spoken and will continue to be said. But, if you’re reading this, none of these will never be said by you.
So, my advice to anyone nervous about speaking to a grieving person is:
First, of course greet them warmly, and perhaps ask if you could share a memory with them. (You always want to be sensitive to their grief, and if they are worried about crying in public or feel overwhelmed they may turn you down or ask you to wait but I don’t think that would be most cases). Most people will want to hear their loved one’s name spoken, hear that they are remembered and they will welcome your memory.
Second, tell them what you remember. Details are precious gems and may illicit tears but they are such good and welcome tears. The presence of tears, generally indicate that you are sharing something very special and wanted.
Third, let them respond and listen to them. It is possible you are the only person who has brought up memories or even spoken the name of their loved one. You may be a safe place if you’ve come to share memories and don’t let any “at least’s” slip out ; )
Being a safe place for someone is one of the very best things you can ever hope to be.
It’s completely true that for many of us, the idea of speaking to grieving people can be intimidating. The fear of making things worse excuses us from saying so many things when, the truth is, if you are speaking out of a genuine place, there is nothing you could do to make their loss worse.
Many grieving people report feeling isolated in their grief, noticing others avoiding them and finding no one who will talk about their loved one with them.
And so, I hope that the next time your path crosses with a grieving person, you won’t shy away but will instead open yourself up to the opportunity to enjoy a wonderful person with someone else who is missing them.
– Have you ever frozen or freaked out about what to say to someone who is grieving?
– What do you say to friends of yours who have lost someone?
Molly, this is incredibly well said! I cringe when I hear the “At least” statements & I realize people think they are looking on the bright side of the situation but there really isn’t a bright side. I heard “At least” each time I lost a pregnancy & I was taken by surprise each time, though I knew to expect it. Thank you so much for sharing these incredibly wise words. XOXOX, Carrie