Loss can strike at any moment, and when it does, those affected are thrust into a deep sorrow called grief. Everyone reacts to grief differently, and until you experience it first-hand, it’s impossible to know exactly what it’s like. This can cause some unease as you try to figure out how to talk to a friend who is grieving. What should you do? What if you say the wrong thing?
Three resilient women have learned first-hand that sometimes there isn’t a right answer to these questions. Kandi Kelderman lost her son, Sam, on Jan. 22, 2016; Amy Kine lost her father, John, on May 19, 2018; and Jil Fiemeyer lost her daughter, Jane, on Sept. 6, 2012.
Their lives were drastically changed after these moments, and their experiences with grief have taught them that sometimes it’s knowing others are simply there for them that brings the most comfort.
So as you scramble for the right words that might bring your grieving friends comfort, take a moment to read through Kandi’s, Amy’s and Jil’s reflections and be encouraged.
It’s not about the words you say.
Kandi – The day of the visitation and funeral, it was just sheer numbers, to see that there were so many people out there that cared. The ones I do remember the most, an out of town lady … She walked up to me and put her hands on the side of my face and just looked at me like, “I’m trying to say something. I don’t know what to say.” She was struggling, and I looked at her and said, “It’s OK. You’re here. You don’t have to say anything.”
If people have something to say and they’re saying something sincerely, that’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter how they word it. Sometimes, as in that case of that mom, saying nothing is just fine.
She was there, I could see what she was trying to say, and that’s all that mattered.
Amy – My best friend came to the funeral and kept checking up on me and let me talk about things. I kept thinking, “Aren’t they tired of hearing me talk about it?” People let me talk about him and his life. Everybody that was there for me supported what we were going through. They reached out in any way possible, card, hug, saying I’ll be there for you if you need anything, bringing food over to my mom’s house, neighbors offering to plow her out, saying we’re here for you no matter what.
Jil – It’s important for people who are walking beside others in the journey of grief to pay attention to the cues of the griever and how the person is reacting. Try to not make it about you but what do they best need, not what I need. Everybody grieves differently. For some, being called strong is comforting. For others, it’s overused. It’s such an individual journey.
I always felt better if someone said something and messed it up than not say anything at all. Them messing it up just means they tried. I’d rather have people say something.
Time doesn’t make it easier.
Kandi – Being able to enjoy life doesn’t mean you don’t miss the person that’s gone. I think a lot of us in my situation understand that, but I think people who haven’t think, “How long is the grieving and mourning? Oh, she’s smiling about something. Everything must be better.”
Jil – The thought process is that the firsts are hard and then there’s a really weird concept that everything gets better and we all move on. But if we happen to realize this might be the 17th Christmas since they lost their spouse, the likelihood is there’s a broken part of their heart that twinges on Christmas. So it’s heartwarming to hear, “I was thinking about you and this person today.”
Being reminded is a gift.
Kandi – I think the biggest fear on my side is people will forget. So to have somebody mention their name or say something, even if it’s, “Hey, I’m sure the holidays are tough for you. Thinking of you.” Something as easy as that.
Jil – If you were to say something and I think about her, I think about that as a gift. To be reminded of her warms my heart, that somebody remembered her. I think that’s the biggest fear for people is that their loved one will be forgotten. It tells you their life was important enough that they were remembered.
Life goes on.
Kandi – I don’t expect everyone every time they see me to acknowledge or to say anything. I think that’s another misconception. If I’m putting gas in my car, I don’t expect an aisle of people to come. That’s not realistic. C.S. Lewis said there is a time for crying, and then there’s just a time for you to decide what to do with the rest of your life. And it’s the ‘do with the rest of your life’ that everybody needs to understand. That it is true. Life goes on.
Amy – I wouldn’t want people to think it’s a bad thing to check on the person to see how their holidays were. But you don’t want everybody asking you things because you have your life too. You’re trying to somehow figure out how to move on. You do move on, but it’s different now. It’s learning how to live without them.
Simply reaching out speaks volumes.
Kandi – It’s tough for people to approach. I’ve been guilty of it myself. Before this happened to me, you feel like it’s intimidating. Some of the people that comfort you the most are not the ones that offer platitudes or tell you that it’s going to be OK. They’re just there.
Amy – People are afraid to say anything, but don’t be afraid to do that. It lets the person know that you think of them and their loved one. I know it’s awkward and uncomfortable. That’s how I felt before I lost my dad. Now going through it, I make it a point to reach out and say, ‘If you need anything, I’m here for you.’ Before, I never would have done that because it’s an uncomfortable subject and I didn’t want to remind them of that. Going through it, I’d rather them come and say something to me than ignore the whole situation.
Jil – If it’s uncomfortable but your gut is saying to reach out, it doesn’t always have to be a phone call. Write a letter. You can rewrite until it’s perfect. It doesn’t have to be seeing them in person. Sometimes, all it has to say is “Thinking about your or whoever has passed.” You don’t have to say anything, but you still say a lot. Maybe it’s sending some flowers.
Be honest and say, “I’m not sure what to say. Just know I’m thinking about you.” If we walk the journey with authenticity and compassion and intention, I think that will itself guide us in what we say and what we do.