We have all been in that moment when someone we love is struggling with news of a devastating loss, and we stare at a blank card or pick up the phone just to put it down again because we have no idea what to say. What can you say? Will anything really help? Everything that comes to mind seems so trite because you've heard it said a million times already.
My goal with this post is to offer some advice from my perspective, based on my own experiences. It won't suit everyone in every situation, but hopefully it will give you a little more confidence as you stare at the next blank card. I also hope to not offend anyone who may be guilty of any of the following, because I am guilty myself. We all have good, loving intentions and want to say something special in an effort to be helpful. Having been on the receiving end though has drastically altered my idea of what is actually helpful.
First off, I apologize to Reba for stealing her song title, but I love that song and it's appropriately suited for this post.
Second, I know it's ridiculously early... but Brett woke up hungry and while feeding him I logged onto Facebook to stay awake (sad, I know) and read something that inspired this so I wanted to get it down while the words are flowing.
1. When you say "I know this doesn't even compare to what you're going through, but...." and you basically go ahead and compare it anyway, not helpful. This is number 1 because it is actually what inspired this entire post. I read on Facebook where a friend of a friend (someone I don't know) offered the "non-comparison" of losing her beloved dog to someone who had recently lost her 15-year old daughter. Well-intended? Yes. Helpful? No. Yes, pets are sometimes like family but attempting to make that comparison (even while denying you are doing so) could be destructive.
2. On the flipside, an affirmative comparison of "I know exactly how you feel" honestly just made me want to punch people in the face. When you are in the very early, ugly stages of grief you almost want to feel isolated with it. It consumes you. To think that someone else has been exactly where you are somehow minimizes what you are feeling, almost as if they had said "oh no big deal, I have been there, done that". Of course that is not what they meant, but another side effect of the early stages of grief is the inability to think rationally. Save this one for a little later.
3. Gestures are very much appreciated, but only if they are effortless to accept. Don't offer to bake a casserole, just bake one. If I don't want it I won't eat it, but will still appreciate the effort. Don't call me and offer up 10 different choices of what you can cook, then 10 different ways you can get it to me. I don't want to make any decisions that don't directly relate to the person I just lost that is consuming my mind every minute of the day. Other decisions, even simple ones, are next to impossible to make right now. One of the nicest gestures I received was a friend who made us dinner then took it to my mom to deliver to me. She could have arranged to bring it directly to me, but she understood... that would not have helped.
4. When you are staring at the dreaded blank card, remember all those phrases that you initially tossed out because everyone says them all the time. You know the ones, "sorry for your loss" and "in our thoughts and prayers". They are repeated often for a reason. Although you desperately want to offer something original, even profound, it will likely be lost on the reader. Everything else is just fluff, another distraction from what they are trying to focus on right now, the person they just lost. A simple heart-felt "I'm so sorry" can speak volumes. Nothing else needs to be said.
5. If you really can empathize with how they're feeling because you really have "been there", let them know... just not now. The ability to rationally relate to someone else comes in the later stages of grief. Give them your "I'm so sorry" and a good hug for right now, then give them some time... they will let you know when they are ready for more. They will also get the most benefit out of it later when they are thinking a little more clearly.
6. Lastly, don't forget them. Time will go by and life gets busy, but their world is still in slow motion. They don't understand how everyone else can just move on like nothing has happened. I will never forget a card I received about a month after Brady died. It had a beautiful picture on front and the inside was blank with a simple handwritten note, "thinking of you". She remembered me because she had been there too. I knew it, and she knew I knew it. She didn't have to tell me all about her experience. With those 3 little words she immediately let me know that even a month later, when the rest of the world had seemingly moved on, she still remembered him... and me. That was priceless.