Six Things to Never Say to a Grieving Person

In March 2021, my husband of 46 years died and a 13-year-old girl took demonic possession of my emotions. I call her Tammy. I try to placate her with soothing tones, carrying scones and mocha lattes to her bedroom door. She opens the door (she’s a sucker for sweets), wearing her You’re Not the Boss of Me t-shirt, her fiery red mass of unruly curls swirling about her head. She snatches the food like the feral child she is, flips me off, and slams the door in my face.

Tammy horrifies me. I was raised to be a good girl and avoid burdening people with my anger or negative feelings. Better to keep such unpleasantness under wraps. Tammy isn’t burdened by such nonsense.

In the months since Gary died, I am astonished by the outpouring of love and support I’ve received. I am grateful, oh so grateful. It shocks me how angry Tammy becomes when people make comments that, while intended to provide comfort, do just the opposite. This consumes her with a rage that embarrasses me, one that I wrestle to control. But she will not be tamed. It’s true that one of the steps in the grief process is anger, but another is acceptance, which makes me feel I need to embrace Tammy. Maybe I can hug her so tightly that I squeeze the very life out of her.

Whenever Tammy encounters someone who says an absurd thing, she snarls, “Don’t pity her.” When people stop pitying me, she whines, “Why aren’t you pitying her?” When they try again, she snaps, “Don’t pity her.”

Pity her. Don’t pity her. Pity her. Don’t pity her. On and on it goes. It’s debilitating.

Recently, Tammy duct taped me to a chair and forced me to compile the following list of things to never say to a grieving person. I balked, not wanting to offend or hurt anyone. She got into my face and screamed “You’re a widow! You can do whatever the hell you want for at least the first year!”

#1 At least he’s no longer suffering

“Oh really?” Tammy spits. “At least?” She wonders why people try to throw this measly life preserver when I’m drowning in my darkest moments. This comment does nothing to ease my pain and causes Tammy to shriek as she stomps up the stairs to her bedroom and slams the door. She opens it to shout, “Screw you!” before slamming it again and again. It’s exhausting and humiliating. I want tie her up, throw her into the back of a white-paneled van and ship her off to a school for troubled teens in Utah.

#2 He had a long, good life

Tammy wonders if people honestly think this offers comfort. She’s drawn her switchblade. (Before joining me, she belonged to a gang.)

Gary did have a long life, mostly good, but deeply affected by the devastating effects of 65 years of living with juvenile diabetes, effects most people know nothing about. His last 10 years were spent dealing with diminished eyesight, mobility and kidneys. He valiantly struggled through each day and remained grateful for what he did have. He was still grateful when he made the difficult decision to come home from the hospital to die. If he’d had a choice, he wouldn’t have chosen death.

Tammy wants people to stop assuming any life was either long or good. It was a life. And it’s over. Grieving people don’t care how long a life was, they want more.

#3 There’s hope for a brighter future

Tammy hates this more than anything. Even more than kale.

If anyone has experienced the intense grief of losing a loved one, one of the last things Tammy wants them to say is that their journey was like a flower that slowly blossomed and left them feeling more radiant than before. This perspective comes years after their loss. Tammy doesn’t want them trying to fast forward me through this process by giving me an end result. They think they’re helping, but they’re not. I cannot fathom such a future and right now these comments only make me sadder because my flower is wilted and rotting. And Tammy wants to kick them in the stomach.

Instead, tell me that at first you were buried up to your neck in raw, stinking sewage. As the pipes unclogged and the sewage began to recede, you could at least move, but it was nearly impossible to trudge forward with it up to your chest, then waist, then knees. Finally, after many months—perhaps years—the muck was at ankle level. By then the struggle had gotten you into Navy Seal training shape and you were able to strut out, hose yourself down, hold your fists high and claim victory. But only partial victory because the mild odor of grief will cling to you forever.

#4 Focus on the good things in your life

Tammy narrows her black eyes and seethes, “If you happen to see any sustainable good things in her life, I’ll let YOU focus on them. Right now I want to punch you in the face.”

Just when I’m able to rise a bit out of the muck and periscope my head from side to side to spy one tiny good thing here and another there, a tragedy strikes. My brother-in-law died suddenly at the end of August. In mid-September, on the morning of my daughter’s wedding, my 91-year-old mother had a major stroke and lingers in a state of limbo. A dear friend died in late September, and another at the end of October. Another close family member died in mid-December. On New Year’s Day, the infant daughter of a young, dear friend was found dead in her crib.

Each of these events belly flopped me back into the cesspool of gloom and made Tammy go wild! She burst out of the house and ran cursing and screaming down the street.

#5 I feel so bad for you living in that big old house all by yourself

I swear, if another person says this to me, I’ll let Tammy have at them with her brass knuckles. Tammy wonders if they understand when they say this that they put me in the position of defending my choice to stay in our family home. A home where we raised our children. A home that comforts and nurtures me daily.

Tammy’s interpretation is that they want me to make them feel better by closing off rooms, confining myself to the living room with a hot plate, chamber pot, a garden hose run through an open window, and a cot. Tammy wonders if it would it make them feel better if I left this big, old house and moved to a smaller place, possibly an alley house where nobody has to worry about me rattling around. Or am I being selfish by staying here and hogging more than my fair share of square footage on this earth? Should I relinquish it to others—perhaps a nice, young couple with two kids, a dog, a couple of cats, and a ferret?

Tammy wants people to know that wherever I live, I’ll be by myself. It’s not like I’m a hermit. I have an active social life. Right now, figuring out how to live alone is an integral part of my grief process. I’m much better off navigating this from a home I love, a place I shared with my family for 30 years.

Tammy wants these people to shut the hell up. Remember, she has duct tape and is not afraid to use it.

#6 Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you

I’m grateful for these generous offers, but they make Tammy clench her fists. She says, “She doesn’t know what she wants from moment to moment. Even though you’ve left the door open to respond to whatever she needs, she’s not capable of reaching out to ask for anything.”

My therapist suggests being specific when offering to help someone. “I’m going to the store today and wonder if there’s anything I can pick up for you.” If the answer is nothing, say, “I’ll bring you a meal from the deli. Does a salad or something you can warm up sound better to you?” Or, “Let’s take a walk this weekend. Would you prefer Saturday or Sunday? What time would you like, one or two o’clock?”

A friend once told me that she contacts people who are suffering and asks, “What do you need right now? What do you need today?” Sometimes they say nothing, but most of the time the responses are magic: “I need a latte.” “I need someone to bring me dinner.” “I need a walk.” She continues to reach out, not often, but maybe every month or so in an effort to not overwhelm them.

Tammy pulls her wild hair back, ties it with a scrunchy and nods approval. She knows that every smartphone has a calendar where this type of outreach can be scheduled on a recurring basis. If you truly want to help someone, do these things.

***

I pretty much hate Tammy. She’s a deep source of my shame. But I also love the way she steps up to fiercely defend me during this fragile emotional time. Someday I may be able to send her to finishing school where she’ll cut her hair, become more polished and learn to control herself. In the meantime, she’s a fitting vessel for my anger.

***

I just locked Tammy in a closet while I confess that I understand that people extend their hearts to provide comfort and help ease my suffering. People don’t intend their words to cause Tammy to burst into flames. Before I experienced Gary’s death, I’m certain I said many things that sent grieving people to the internet to shop for voodoo dolls.

Tammy is yelling at me through the closet door. “You need to tell them! Tell them now!”

Throughout this journey, I once got her calmed down enough to help me compile a list of what we consider the only things that need to be said:

  • I don’t know what to say.
  • I’m holding you in my heart.
  • This sucks so bad.
  • Give a warm hug and say, “I love you.”
  • Say nothing, bow your head in reverence, and listen . . .simply listen.

9 thoughts on “Six Things to Never Say to a Grieving Person

  1. Oh Kate….this is an amazing piece on grieving. I will definitely save it. Clearly you have not lost your sense of humor…it does help to get the message out. Your message is so spot on…and you share it in such a beautiful way. I am glad that you locked Tammy up for the time being…but indeed she is right. This really does suck…and I am sorry. Love, Sallie

    >

  2. Tammy with her switch blade and duct tape and potty mouth isn’t afraid of offending anyone. I’m glad she hasn’t cut my cheeks and has stuck around awhile to defend your heart and teach the rest of us that it is brave to live out loud, especially the ugly parts. I love you. And risking brass knuckles, I’ll say it, I love you, too, Tammy.

    • Tammy loves you, too. Someone recently told me anger is sad’s bodyguard. I looked up the quote and it is credited to an author named Liza Palmer. I’m so grateful to have Tammy as my bodyguard. She doesn’t suffer fools who try to silence me with platitudes or changing the words I use to describe my pain in order to sugar-coat the experience and make it more comfortable for THEM!

  3. After my sister’s five year old son died, someone actually said to her “I couldn’t have gone through what you went through.” And my sister’s inner Tammy wanted to scream “What choice did I have!!!!!”

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