What Not to Ask Someone Suffering
People ask me all the time what to say and what to do for people who are grieving the death of someone they love. And I’m glad they ask. I’m glad they want to know what is really helpful and meaningful, and what is completely unhelpful and actually hurtful. And I wish I could tell you that I always know myself what to say. But sometimes words fail me. And I wish I could tell you that I never say the wrong thing. But I do. In fact, a few days ago, I made the mistake I often tell other people not to make.
The minute I said it I wished I hadn’t. I should know better. But it’s just what came out. Maybe it’s what comes out when you talk to grieving people too. Here’s what I said. Or more accurately, what I asked:
How are you?
It doesn’t seem so wrong, does it? It’s a question that reveals that we care. It lets the person know we haven’t forgotten about their loss. Really it is an invitation for the grieving person to talk about their loss. But many grieving people say they simply hate the question. They feel put on the spot to report on their job performance in this task they’ve been given — continuing to live when their loved one has died — a task for which they had no training and for which they seem to have no resources. It’s a question they don’t know how to answer. “I’m fine” isn’t quite right. They may be functioning, and perhaps even feeling better, but they know they’re not “fine.” “I’m terrible” seems whiney. “I’m angry!” seems unacceptable. “I’m crying all the time” seems pathetic.
Something Is Wrong
“How are you?” is one of those questions that always bothered my husband, David, in those days after our daughter, and later our son, died. He always felt like he was supposed to quantify his progress back toward normalcy. In our book When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One, he wrote, “In the midst of my own pain and confusion, I suddenly also felt responsible to others to give an account for my progress. As the words of my reply came measured through my lips, I wondered if my report would be acceptable.”
“‘How are you?’ made him feel like he was supposed to quantify his progress back to normalcy.”
The grieving person knows what the questioner most likely wants to hear — that everything is getting better, the world is getting brighter, the darkness is lifting, and the tears are subsiding. But oftentimes that just isn’t the way it is, and it is awkward to be honest about the confusion, listlessness, and loneliness of grief. The reality of grief is that sometimes right after the loss we feel strong, but as time passes, and the reality of life without that person settles in, we feel weak and weepy. And it’s awkward to talk about.
We’re afraid that if we tell you how sad we are, you might think there is something “wrong” with the way we’re doing this grief thing. We’re afraid you will assume we should be on a steady upward path toward normalcy and that we’re going in the wrong direction. Sometimes we want to scream that we will never be “normal” again. And sometimes we just want to say, “How am I? I’m sad. And I wish the world — including you — would simply give me some time and space to simply be sad. This person I loved has died and I miss him. He mattered to me and therefore it makes sense that I would not get over his absence easily or quickly.”
What Should You Say?
So, as you interact with someone going through the lonely adjustment of grief, what should you ask in place of “How are you?” Here are some ideas:
What is your grief like these days? This question assumes that it makes sense that the person is sad and gives him the opportunity to talk about it.
I can’t imagine how hard it must be to face these days without (name of person who died). Are there particular times of day or days of the week you’re finding especially hard? Keep on saying the name of the person who died. It is music to the grieving person’s ears.
“Keep on saying the name of the person who died. It is music to the grieving person’s ears.”
I find myself really missing (name of person who died) when I . . . It is a great comfort for the grieving person to know that he or she is not the only one who misses the person who died.
I often think of you when I’m (gardening/driving by your house/going for a walk/getting up in the morning/etc.) and whisper a prayer for you to experience God’s comfort. Are there particular things I could be praying for you as you go through this time of grief?
I know that (name of the person who died)’s birthday/deathday is coming up and it must be so very hard to anticipate that day without him/her here. What are you thinking about that day? Is there anything we could do to help you get through that day?
I know the holidays/mother’s day/father’s day/your anniversary is coming up. I will be especially thinking of you and praying for you as that approaches. We would love to have you over. Would you join us?
In a sense, all of these questions are asking, “How are you?” but somehow they express a desire to enter into the sorrow of another instead of merely getting a report on their sorrow. In this way we come alongside to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).