Sunday, October 8, 2017

What to Say (and What Not To Say)

Before I continue, I want to say that I appreciated every single visit, phone call, text, email, Facebook chat and comment, WhatsApp message, virtual hug and telepathic communication I received during shiva and beyond.  It was nothing less than an inundation of love and caring that helped to add a cushion to a very difficult time.  

I also recognize that many people feel uncomfortable when faced with someone else’s loss and do not know what to say in consolation.  It’s a tricky time when emotions run high, and well intentioned comments may come with a sting.  

For this reason, I want to use this space to offer some tips to those fortunately uninitiated into the club of loss and those who struggle to find the right words when words feel so terribly inadequate.  Note: if you have used any of the phrases on the “Don’t Say” list in the past, don’t waste time feeling badly.  I know that your words were well meant and I will never hold it against you… there’s also a chance it gave me a much needed laugh (not at your expense, but at the words themselves).  Don’t look back; just move forward and choose from the “Say” list in the future.


Here’s a great article from the New York Times, published the day after I got up from Shiva.  Many of its recommendations are on point.  My personal suggestions are below: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/24/smarter-living/condolence-letters-how-to.html


Here’s What You Can Say:
  • “May your memories bring you comfort.”
  • “May you find comfort among family and friends.”
  • “May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
  • “I don’t know what to say.”
  • Just say my name.
  • “Can I give you a hug?” (good idea to ask first, not everyone will accept)
  • Nothing at all… just sit and be there with me.
  • Tell me a story about my father that I don’t know… or remind me of a shared memory.
  • Ask me about my father or if I want to show you a picture.
  • Remind me who you are…
    • I want to remember, I really do.  Seeing your familiar face means the world to me at this moment.  
    • Please don’t be offended if I can’t recall your name right away… my brain is on overload.  I promise, it’s not personal.
  • Walk up to me with confidence.  
    • It’s a sad moment, but I promise not to bite you for walking through the door.  I am glad you came.  Don’t forget that I’m still me.  Please treat me like you would always treat me.  If you enter shyly or look uncomfortable, it will make me feel uncomfortable too.  
  • “Thinking of you and sending a hug.”  (If you can’t be there in person)


Don’t Say:
  • “I’m sorry about your loss.”  
    • Do you think I misplaced him, like a missing sock?  Kind of hard to overlook a close family member.  (I know what you mean, but I found it more comforting to hear “I’m sorry about your father.”)
    • Some feel that the word “loss” is too generic… personalizing the sentiment can help to comfort the person who is mourning (please do be sure to get it right, though).
    • Better to be specific, though if you’re not sure who passed away, stick with generic loss.  Far better than mistakenly mentioning a relative that is still living.
  • “I can’t imagine what you must be going through.”  
    • I’m SO glad you don’t know and I don’t want you to try.  It’s bad enough that I know what I’m going through… your imaginings won’t help me and they’ll scare you.  My father said that the bad times will find us, “don’t waste time being afraid.”  
    • Just be here for me.  You don’t have to say anything and you definitely don’t need to try to imagine what I'm feeling.
  • "I'm sorry I didn't call/text/teleport/fax/etc."
    • I know you mean well, but apologies are not necessary. I don't want to know what you were doing while I was hurting... your mentioning it just sends the memories rushing back.
    • Focus on right now - use any phrases from the "say" list and then follow my lead about whether I want to talk about my loss or about something/anything else.
  • “We’re short one (for a minyan).”  
    • Of course we are - it’s a shiva house.  Watch your words please… this can bring back hurtful thoughts.  I’ll just go ahead and call my dad…. oh wait…  he’s not here… anymore.  Tissue please.  
    • Figure out a better way of finding that last person for the minyan (note: I know your heart is in a good place… this is probably something you’ve never thought of before).
  • “How are you doing?”  
    • How do you think I’m doing?
  • “What’s wrong?”
    • Ditto above…
  • Baruch Dayan Emet (blessed is the true judge).”  
    • This is the first blessing a mourner is allowed (forced) to recite after tearing clothes at the cemetery.  Please don’t throw those charged words back in my face… this is my tragedy, not yours, and you don’t get to cavalierly tell me what I should be thinking.
    • You can say this when you hear bad news yourself… but saying it to the mourner in person or in writing is in poor taste (my humble opinion).
  • “I hope you’re doing well.”  
    • What’s wrong with you?
  • “What happened, was he sick?”  
    • Does it really matter?  
    • How does making me rehash the horror help you (or me, for that matter)?
    • If you want to know whether the death was sudden, try asking exactly that: “Did you have any warning?” This focuses on the mourner's experience rather than any extended illness or discomfort that preceded the death.
  • Tell me all about your own tzuris (troubles).  
    • No offense, but my brain is not in a place where it can take in anything beyond the immediate task of navigating grief.  
    • Don’t be upset if later I don’t remember anything you say… it wasn’t the right time to share it anyway.
  • “Let me know how I can help.”  
    • I know you mean well, but now I have to a) remember that you offered, b) think about your want/need to help me, c) find a job for you, d) look up your phone # or contact info, and e) reach out and ask you to do it.  
    • You really want to help?  Call me with a specific offer.  I’ll know you’re there and willing to help and will be more likely to either give you a job right then or think of you later when I need the same job done.  [See post: "What Can I Do To Help" for some constructive ideas.]
    • Remember, I don’t know yet what I’ll need to get me through the next days and weeks and months, and the needs may change and evolve with time.  Please don’t be offended if I don’t take you up on this well intentioned offer.
  • “Call me if you need anything or want to talk.”
    • Ditto above.
    • The sentiment is sweet, and if I ever get to make the list I intend to create of all the people who reached out with all of their generous, considerate offers, I'll make sure to make a note and reach out when I need to. In the meantime, checking in every so often and asking what I'm up to (rather than how I'm doing) will be much appreciated.
  • “That's life.”  No it's not, it's death.  If you don't know, don't try to tell me… (I'm SO glad you don't know.  Still, don't tell me.)
  • “Things happen for a reason.”  Were you trying to make me feel guilty?  I feel badly enough already… and if given the choice between your “reason” and my father, I’d choose my father.  But no one gave me a choice….  Go philosophize out of my earshot.


Tips for the mourner:
  • Think about what YOU want to talk about during the Shiva and deflect the conversation in that direction. Personally, I wanted to collect as many stories about my father as I could.
    • (I also wrote them down in a notebook and told the visitors I was doing so - this helped me alleviate some of the fear that I would forget.  Someone else I know used a tape recorder to preserve stories about his father.)
  • Prepare a quick and pithy response to the inevitable questions about cause of death (and other annoying questions), then redirect the conversation toward your own goals.
  • When people offer to help, tell them to check in with you in a month or two.  You can even start assigning 2-3 people to give you a call in a specific month by giving them a concrete assignment: “Please take me for a walk in September” or “Let’s meet for dinner in October”
    • You may need to remind people that you’re not yet able to make specific plans, but if they check in as time goes on, you’ll appreciate it, and have a better idea of your needs.
    • Don’t offer this invitation to someone whose company you will not appreciate.
    • Direct people toward a friend or friends who can coordinate on your behalf concrete things such as meals, company for minyanim, walks, etc.


Again, these tips are meant to make the consolation process a bit easier for all concerned and should in no way be taken as a criticism... by anyone. I appreciated all the outreach I received and continued to receive, and will always remember the love and caring that surrounded me and helped me move through the darkest moment of my life.


1 comment:

I am an educator who is trained to reflect, not a rabbi or any type of halachic authority. These writings are in no way binding, and may not represent all approaches to and experiences in navigating grief. In fact, there will likely be those who disagree with me or can offer additional suggestions and reflections. For this reason, I am leaving the comments section open so that together as a community, we can broaden the scope of this blog to include a majority of human experience.

One important request: Please be respectful in posting your comments and be sure to frame your tips in the most positive phrasing possible. I reserve the right to delete any unkind comments and plan to update the original posts occasionally to include additional insights and reflections from our combined experience.

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