What To Say When Someone Has Died.

It’s been one of those weeks. I realize the title of this post is a little dry, emotionless, business-like even. But I don’t mean it that way. It’s been something I’ve thought and written about before, and in the wake of tragedy the words have been busying my brain. (Hence me writing now, at 3:30 am)

A good friend of mine lost her love suddenly and tragically this week. I hardly knew him at all, but of course in the hazy aftermath of the realization that he’s gone, and the strong sadness I feel for my friend who lost him, we all can’t help that feeling that so often comes in death, sudden or not. He was too young. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Things like this happen to other people. Death is always a knock at someone else’s door. Rarely do we feel accepting when it knocks at our own. Or comes into our neighborhood anyway.

The worst of it is, there truly isn’t much to say in these situations. And as humans, as fixers and problem solvers, it leaves us all a little stumped. A little quiet. There are few words I can think to say to my friend who lost him. Accept to hold on. That we as friends will hold her hand through it. That it will be OK. But first it will be hard and trying and she already knows that. One day at a time I would tell her. Some days, one hour.

As having lost a dad to cancer–a slower death, and a step dad to heart attack- an abrupt and unforseen death, I can say that both are difficult in different ways. At least in cancer  you have time to prepare your affairs to some extent. I remember my father in his bathrobe, stick thin except for his swollen legs, on our back patio in the sun picking out music for his funeral. Laughing. Having a wonderful time. And that memory really sticks with me. It made me for once, unafraid of death. With my step-father it was different. No preparation, no time to really process it. He was here and then he wasn’t. Alive then in the ground. And what do you say to a mother who loses the second love of her life? How do you convince her there is design in all this? In the depth and solitude of grief, it’s hard to find reason in any of it. I know that feeling very well. And vague phrases about life and God and a reason for things, often fall flat. In the moment of pain, you just have to feel it and grieve it and keep on going. This is life after all. Peaks and valleys. And here I go with the vague phrases about our temporary existence. I’ll stop.

What I really want to say, is that I feel a real duty in being there for humankind when they lose someone they love. Mostly because I remember what helped and what didn’t in past times of tragedy. And also because there is no education in all this. No preparation in school for what to say and how to act when someone we know has died. And for anyone reading this, it may seem abundantly clear how lacking we are in this culture of behavior in death. There is, or maybe there should be etiquette in it. And so many lack it. I remember a family friend calling after we lost Roger. “What are you guys going to do?!?!” She pleaded to me on the phone. “And your sister is getting married next week!! In the same place your mother was married?! What will she do? Will your mother keep the house?!” I sat on the phone quiet, with tears running down my face. “I don’t know” is all I could say. And then, silence. Because I didn’t know. There was no way to know what to do next. Like I said, one day at a time. I just remember thinking that asking so many questions at that time wasn’t very helpful. In fact, it was the opposite. It’s not at all a time to start changing major life plans or rearranging things. Mourning is a process, and we have to be patient. The most helpful people in that time of crisis, were those who made small decisions for my mother, and didn’t bombard her with questions. A house in a time of grief is filled with flowers and food sent and relatives and friends. There are logistical things to take care of. There is damage control to do. And that’s what we all did for my mom, attempting not to bother her with details. I know this sounds perverted, but in some ways it can be a really beautiful time. It is when we truly acknowledge what it is to be human. We show our love without hesitation. We hold each other in tears and cry with them or let them cry on us. With this embrace we communicate that their pain is our pain too. In death we’re all the same.

I am a severe lover of animals and what they can teach human beings. (Far more than we give them credit for, I think) In grief I am reminded of elephants, one of the only other animals that are noted to grieve physically. They allow themselves to cry. They can be seen caressing the body after the animal has died, and different, distinct behavior can be observed of a matriarch even years after she loses a baby. Surviving elephants are known to stand together in their herd by the body of a fallen one in silence and stillness. Undoubtedly, they exude sorrow and seem to have some sort of formal grieving process, even beyond physical tears. Whenever I think of someone who will need help in their grief, I think of the elephants, standing by one another. They seem to convey to us, it’s not something to do alone.

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I remember at the time of Rogers death, some of the most poignant times and helpful moments were those with no words at all. As each of my mothers four children and two step children made their way to our house, each hugged my mom, and both simply cried. I remember her weak voice, but her warm body when we hugged for a while. I live closest to home so I was the first kid to get there. Walking up our porch steps I thought “What will I say?” When we met eyes all she said was my name and then we hugged and cried together for what felt like a long time. But truly, that seemed the mose appropriate thing to do. The only thing to do. There were no words to say then. Helping someone grieve and truly being there for a fellow family member or friend is not so much a matter of having the right words to say but more a matter of simply being there. A warm body to embrace when the reality is too much. A literal shoulder to cry on. Someone who allows us our sadness.

For many people, the crying makes them uncomfortable, or the silence does. But crying is just a part of our grief and something we have to do. It’s a sign of us coming to terms with death. It will come out some way or another. We’re so quick to hush the griever and tell them its OK. But I think it’s acceptable to admit that things suck right now and the creator seems like an idiot and even crack jokes when the timing is right. I never cried or laughed so much as the week that Roger died. Which may sound morbid but it really wasn’t. Someone’s death brings on too the celebration of their life. It’s a time to tell stories and toast to their quarks and remember their beauty. Crying and laughter will ensue, sometimes in the same breath. And maybe even drunken debauchery. At any rate, I want to tell my friend, and anyone in the throes of grief, that it’s OK to cry and it’s OK to laugh and it’s OK to throw plates at the wall. Anything you feel is OK honestly, and you just need to do what feels right to you. There’s no right way to do it.

I didn’t have an answer for the woman on the phone with so many questions before. I couldn’t have known that a year later my mother would fall in love with the brother of my dads best friend and that even a tragic story like this would have its own happy ending. And maybe that was one of the biggest things Rogers death showed me; it was an end, but not the end. The story would go on. And that’s what I want my friend and anyone in the depths of despair to know. The only adage that gave me hope was remembering that This too shall pass. And it did.

Health, Happiness, Grief.

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25 thoughts on “What To Say When Someone Has Died.

  1. I handle death horribly. I never know what to say. Heck, I barely know what to say when someone is simply having a bad day, once more losing someone they love. I fear that loss myself all the time. We lost my dad in ’07 and it was unexpected. He’d died a week before we found him, due to heart attack. It’s awkward. It’s miserable and emotions for me do not come easy, despite how jello I am watching a tv scene. Real Life emotion is rough to deal with. I don’t think there is any sort of etiquette that can ever actually cover this

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  2. You are a hell of a smart compassionate woman. Your family must truly be proud. You are an inspiration to many fibro sufferers have and I hope I somehow your pain and problems ease so You can live a somewhat normal life. Being a sickie is not so much fun.

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  3. I lost my fiance last summer in a helicopter crash… time has stopped in my world and 14 months later its still so incredibly hard. My friend Rachel (doilooksick blog) shared this with me, and i had to thank you… even though you dont know me, and i know you wrote this for your friend, i feel like you wrote this for me too. Its still so hard a year later… and i still need people to remind me that I’m not alone. Thank you for that.

    And I’m praying for your dear friend, i hate that i know what she is going through right now, i hate that i know that she feels like she died too. If it helps at all, you let her know i’m around, and she can talk to me anytime she wants to. (sarahtreanor@gmail.com) Or she can read my blog, our1000days.com, where i’ve shared a lot of my own pain and journey. Much love to her and to you.

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  4. This is absolutely amazing, it’s like you took the words right out of my mouth. I lost my dad when I was 13, a month into my freshman year of high school. Loss of a parent is absolutely the worst possible thing to happen to a child, let alone a true daddy’s girl.

    My mom remarried and after 2 1/2 years together they just got a divorce (I never cared for him anyway). But like you, what do you say to a mom who’s lost the love of her life twice?… one was taken too soon and the other left by choice… She’s an extremely strong and independent woman so I have no doubt she’ll get through it again. We’re extremely close and talk about everything, except my dad’s death. It doesn’t come up a lot, one because I don’t think we really mourned it together and two because I hate seeing my mom cry and I hate her seeing me cry… I’m sure you know how that is. But I found a lot of my relief and ‘therapy’ in my friends. 10 years later and I’m extremely open about my dad’s death. I enjoy talking about it, I think it helps me grieve and I actually think my dad likes it when I talk about him – his death usually has me talking about all the great things I loved and miss about him.

    I will definitely be checkin in on your blog often. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. It means a lot :)

    Take care!

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  5. This is so wonderful! I too had a friend lose her soul mate tragically and suddenly at a young age leaving her alone to raise two young children. I learned a lot during these grieving years and totally agree about the laughing/crying sometimes in the same breath. We would make rude jokes about the dearly departed and since he wasn’t there to defend himself (duh) we really had fun with it in what I am sure people on the outside was some sort of weird, twisted grieving ritual in some culture somewhere in the world.
    Most importantly, like you, I learned that you absolutely must talk. Don’t run from those who are grieving (she had people hide from her in grocery stores–really!). Just be there. No words needed other than I am sorry. Sometimes talking just isn’t possible but when it is, you will be there, ready. They will know. She did and to this day remembers those who were there and because she is so amazing (sigh) she forgives those who could not. She was my inspiration for having the courage to launch my own blog. She agreed to help me write a post (Death is not for sissies) and it was one more example of her incredible courage.
    Sorry for the long comment but I am just so happy to see someone talking about how to talk to those who are grieving! Thanks so much!!!

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    1. thanks for reading and sharing. glad your friend had a friend like you to see her through it. nobody knows morbid humor like my family so I wouldn’t be weirded out by your jokes! best to you and her family.

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  6. You made me cry and shiver with the intimacy and truth in this piece. I lost my dog this year and the best remedy was having Oz stay with me all night, just crying and being held. Thank you for not being afraid to tell the truth and to find the beauty even in death. I wish I could write like that…the exact thing people need to read and hear in their hearts the minute they need it. You are wonderful

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    1. sorry to hear about your pup. I lost my one year old black lab (pre-monty) unexpectedly and honestly, it was just as hard as losing a person. not as easy for others to understand, but when you know, you know. thank you for reading.

      p.s. the best therapy a while after brusky died? getting a new puppy. (enter monty) ;)

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  7. How beautifully you have expressed my thoughts at this moment. My beloved husband & soul mate died suddenly a few weeks ago and I feel so disassociated from everything around me. I am still waiting for his cause of death as it was not a heart attack as we thought. It happened on his birthday after we had spent the evening happily celebrating. Two weeks after his death and funeral I attended my daughters wedding, a ten hour journey from my home.

    The seat next to me at the wedding ceremony was empty as it was where he should have sat, and I felt his arm around me as I cried when she said her vows. So your comment on the family wedding touched me.

    I believe I made the mistake, after the wedding, of not returning back my marital home where I feel close to my beloved and would be surrounded by our memories. Instead I took up the kind offers from family, to stay close to them and commit to renting a place until I decided on my future. So I advise others in my position to follow what they feel rather than what others – however well meaning, think they should do.

    My logical mind knows it will get better and my spiritual beliefs help me cope with day to day frustrations, anger and sadness. There is nothing anyone can say to make things better, all they can do is keep in touch, check in now and then by phone or letter, and offer to take you out for a few hours to remind you that life is going on, and always will do.

    Thank you x

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    1. Really sorry to hear of your loss. I know that the first couple months after are always a blur. The mind seems to change almost hourly. For sure your husband was seated next to you at the wedding. We seem to brush off these feelings with logic or science, but the truly spirited know that death doesn’t take them completely away. Hang in there, and remember to keep your eyes and heart open to communication with him in other ways. love and prayers to you.

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  8. This was so well written having lost my dad a couple of years ago. And spot on. Another animals that grieves profoundly upon losing one of their own is the wolf. Thanks for sharing
    Lisa

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    1. I love wolves! I’ll have to read up on that. Thanks for reading and sharing. I think our dads are both looking out for us, it’s just up to us to see them through different eyes. All my best.

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  9. What exquisitely beautiful advice.. you are such an amazing person. I am learning so much from reading your blog.
    Thank you from one who is your moms age

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  10. Ah, Mary. You made me cry into my yoga bra. Grief is a sneaky bitch, and you describe it so well. I lost my three beloved dogs in the first three months of this year. It was indescribably, searingly awful, and I’m grateful all the time that no one said anything stupid to me like, “Everything happens for a reason.” I think I’d have ended up on the news, followed by prison. I can’t begin to imagine what your friend is experiencing; my heart breaks for her and I’m just glad that she has a friend who gets it, and knows when to keep her mouth shut.

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    1. Oh Mary—what a wise woman you are. Why is it that the hardest things in life teach us the most. This is just what I needed to read tonight. I have lost four friends and family members this summer and tomorrow I am headed to “Camp Good Grief” to be a buddy for children that have experience the loss of someone close.
      What wise words you wrote. I will carry them in my heart on that school bus to camp!

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      1. Thanks for reading! I’m glad to hear the words helped. It is just as therapeutic for me to write them. :) Sorry to hear of your losses…you know the drill, hang in there. Laugh, cry, and when there’s nothing else..beer helps. :)

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    2. I know how it goes losing a dog so I can’t imagine losing three. Did you get another one? After my lab died I was pretty beat up about it for months. The day I brought home Monty as 5 week old puppy was true bliss. I know that one day he too will pass, but apparently their purpose isn’t to stay with us forever, but to remind us to live in the present. Hang in there..and let us know when you get another! Xoxo.

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      1. We can’t quite bring ourselves to get another dog just yet, though we are definitely planning on it. Just when you think you’ve got this grief thing figured out, it morphs into something different, but the same. It’s much less acute now, but very deep and somehow quiet. I’ll never be “over” it, but I want to make sure that when we bring this new bebe into our lives, it’s about him or her as much as possible, and not our baggage.

        Which reminds me: did you know that the Germans have a word for the weight you put on while grieving? It is “kummerspeck,” literally “grief bacon.”

        Grief. Bacon.

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