There are No Magic Words

Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried. Megan Devine

The Internet is full of articles about what not to say to someone who is grieving. Don’t say “I know how you feel.” Don’t ask “How are you?” Don’t offer platitudes or rationalizations. Don’t, don’t, don’t. By the time I get done reading the article, I think it’s a wonder anyone says anything at all to those of us who are grieving.

When a friend or family member loses one of their essential people, we are often desperate to find the right words to say. Words that will offer some comfort, ease their pain, make everything better. Some people fall back on their religious upbringing (“You’ll be together again”). Others try to demonstrate their understanding of the loss or loss in general by sharing their own (“I know just how you feel – my grandfather died last year”). Too often, they avoid the topic altogether for fear of “making things worse.”

There’s a myth in the land of grief that there are “magic” words and phrases that will comfort and help heal the bereft. And it’s up to the family member or close friend to figure out what they are, often armed with only a list of what not to say to guide them.

But the truth is that there are no magic words. Nothing anyone says will bring my son back. Nothing anyone says will heal the Jimmy size hole in my life and my heart. But there are words that offer me comfort and help ease my pain.

  • “I am so sorry” – what a powerful phrase, when used as an invitation for a conversation, not a way of ending one. For me, it says that the other person is focused on my loss. I’m left feeling seen and a little less alone in my grief. I also know that the other person isn’t trying to fix anything and or diminish my pain or my beloved who’s died.
  • “Tell me about Jimmy” – at a memorial service for the daughter of a dear friend, I was introduced to a friend of a friend named Joe. When Joe heard about Jimmy, he told me how sorry he was and then asked me to tell him about who Jimmy was, asking ‘what was Jimmy like?’ ‘What did Jimmy enjoy doing?’ “What made him laugh?’ What a gift to be able to talk about my sweet son as he lived.
  • “I don’t know what to say” – no one does, and how sweet and vulnerable of someone to admit it. In the early days when I was raw and fragile, that phrase and a hug brought me a lot of comfort. Now that I’m less raw, the phrase, when it’s an invitation to talk, invites me to say how I’m doing or talk about how much I miss Jimmy. It offers me an opportunity to tell the other person how much I appreciate their bravery in acknowledging my loss, despite not knowing what to say. And it’s such a better choice than not saying anything at all.
  • “I remember when Jimmy and I…” – what a gift to hear a funny story or special memory of Jimmy, even if I’ve already heard it.
  • Say Jimmy’s name – The mother of one of my daughter’s college softball teammates asked me if I would tell her about Jimmy, saying “I don’t know if it’s okay to ask about him or not”. It is. I think about him all the time, and what a blessing it is to be able to talk about him.

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  • RememberKala says:

    YES! YES! YES!

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