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 offer an explanation or rationalization
  • Don’t ask, “how are you?”
  • Don’t say, “I know how you feel”
  • Don’t offer platitudes
  • Don’t, don’t, don’t …

By the time I get done reading articles like that, I don’t know what to say to a grieving person despite having a dead son and a dead mother and father.

When we have a friend or family member who’s lost someone they love dearly, we are desperate to find the right words to offer comfort. We fall back on our religious upbringing (“You’ll be together again.”). We try to demonstrate an understanding of the loss by sharing our own devastating loss (“I know how you feel – I lost my grandfather last year.”). We avoid mentioning the dead loved one’s name. And sometimes, we don’t say anything at all.

There’s a myth in the land of grief that there are “magic words” 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 with only a list of what not to say to guide them.

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’m so very 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, and I’m a little less alone in my grief. I also know that the other person isn’t trying to fix anything and that my suffering matters.
  • “Tell me about Jimmy” – at a memorial service for the daughter of a dear friend, I was introduced to a friend of my 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 – what was Jimmy like, what was he passionate about, what did he enjoy doing. What a gift to be able to talk about my sweet son and what made him so wonderful and so unique.
  • “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 is an invitation to talk about how I’m doing and how much I miss Jimmy. It also offers me an opportunity to tell the other person how much I appreciate their bravery in reaching out, despite not knowing what to say. And it’s such a better choice than not saying anything.
  • “I remember when Jimmy and I…” – what a treat 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 softball teammates asked me recently 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 gift it is to be able to talk about him.

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