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.