How to Comfort the Bereaved

1. Do not say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Just don’t. Okay? No matter how many times someone has said this sentence to you, recognize its words as vacuous substitutes for real words that actually have something meaningful to say. What reason are children taken too soon from their mothers, or mothers from their children? What reason does your child get to live and another has to die? Luck? Chance? Probability? Suffering is random, indiscriminate. Not personal. When you personalize suffering, you are not offering comfort. You are saying, “You deserved this.”

2. Do not say, “It was meant to be.” See above.

3. Do not say, “This was God’s plan.” I don’t know what kind of god or God or G-d you believe in, but these words make your god/God/G-d sound like a calculating psychopath. Do you really mean that? A glimmer of my own god, which I call goodness, tells me such putrid malevolence can’t possibly exist. Or if it does, it’s called evil.

4. Do not ask, “What can I do?” You might be short on ideas. This is normal. Grief is overwhelming for everyone involved. But now is not the time to give a grieving person one more thing to do –– i.e. authoring your “To-Do” list. Figure out what you can do, and then do it. For example, you do not need to ask permission to leave a meal on a porch. Not a good cook? Leave a bag of potato chips. Anonymous potato chips can be a great comfort. Better yet, start a meal train and/or order takeout.

5. Do not ask “What happened?” You know the answer already, i.e. something horrific. So why are you really asking? Are you afraid this horrible something might happen to you? That’s not surprising. Another person’s loss can force us to confront our own deepest fears, ones we’ve buried so far down we can barely see them. Do not turn away. Call each of your fears by name until they rise up from the deepest part of you. Understand their power. Understand projection.

6. Do not ask, “How are you?” When a rabbi asked me this question at my mother’s shiva, my heart shriveled into a piece of coal, and I said something sarcastic that he well deserved: How do you think I’m doing?

Let me rephrase that now: How do you think a grieving person is doing?

Not so good. Right? So instead of asking this question, offer a hug, a hand, a potato chip. Offer yourself as a person others do not need to perform happiness around.

7. Do not ask, “How can I help?” See number 4.

8. Do not say “Time heals all wounds.” I wish this expression were true. But, in my own experience, time has not been a great healer because, in this world, we have something called “triggers.” Maybe you’ve heard this word. Maybe you’ve even joked “trigger warning!” before you’ve said something that freaked out a lot of people? Or maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. So let me explain. Triggers are like giant arrows that rip through time and take us right back to our worst traumas. Sometimes you know what will trigger you, and sometimes you don’t.

For example, the morning I began to miscarry my first pregnancy, I fell to the floor and wept the same way I did when I lost my mother fifteen years before. In that moment, two losses swam inside of me. Mother. Baby. Both gone, forever. And there was nothing I could do. In that moment I was me, the 36-year-old, with a cute house & beyond amazing husband & a horribly behaved dog. And I was the 21-year-old who could not even stand up, because the ground – or what she thought of as ground –– had disappeared.

At best, time can offer perspective. But it’s not a magic suture.

It is okay to be broken open by our losses, to be cracked into a thousand unknowable pieces by them. As Leonard Cohen once sung, “That’s how the light gets in.”

9. Do not say “It’s time to move on.This, by far, is the absolute worst thing to say. A loss can live inside a person forever, and a person can live inside a loss, around it, through it, and on into a life s/he never possibly imagined, a life fundamentally shaped by what has been lost.

Respect the awesome, holy, transfiguring power of loss. Honor it. Build an altar in your heart for it. There is no other way to proceed.





6 thoughts on “How to Comfort the Bereaved

  1. 10. When the grief is the result of a family member’s suicide, never ask if the survivor knew the deceased would do this.

  2. I might add a few more – our 20 yr old only daughter was killed in a car accident 3/16/15 since then we have learned that people try to lay blame for death on something someone has done. this was an ACCIDENT no one did anything wrong – Referring to #5 don’t ask what happened and don’t try to place blame
    #11 DO ask about the person who died. “Tell me about ….” DO tell the living stories about the person who died. They love to hear them – all of them even the cringe worthy. Then sit quietly and listen – even if you have heard the same story a thousand times.
    Referring to #3 Do Not ask if we think “they achieved God purpose for them on earth?”
    #12 Do not say “You are so strong. I could not go on if this happened to me” Really? as much as we wish the earth would stop turning and everything would stop – it doesn’t. The sun continues to rise and set.
    #13 Do not say ” I didn’t want to upset you by bringing up (the person who died). Its not like we ever forget. Over time the death and everything surrounding it becomes less in the forefront of our consciousness but it is always there. It is healing to continue to say their name and remember them
    #14 Get over your own fear of death and don’t use euphemisms such as “passed on or lost”. They died & based on our beliefs we know exactly where they are.
    Lastly take time to read a few of Alan Wolfelt’s articles or books.

  3. Excellent article in the Dallas Morning News. I am now a GriefShare group leader, after losing my husband a few years ago. I am going to share this with our group members.
    In a sermon my pastor did a while back, he put it simply, “Shut up and show up.” In other words, don’t ask, don’t talk, just do … something to help. Call, visit, take the person out for a meal, bring a meal. A lot of people offer but don’t follow through. Most important, stay in touch down the road, not just the first few weeks.
    For the grieving, be patient with people and try to let them know what you do need. Unless and until they’ve walked the path you’re on, they can’t comprehend what you’re going through.

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