Advice · Family · Friendship

Comforting Someone Who Is Grieving

I recently lost a friend to a drug overdose. I was sharing that news with an acquaintance and she made a sympathetic face and said “well maybe it is for the best. At least now the pain is over.” I resisted smacking her in the face but only barely and I definitely didn’t have anything to say in return. I realize the standard death platitudes may not seem to make sense when the deceased had a messy life but that doesn’t mean the grief isn’t real. Any suggestions to help others figure out something better to say.

I am so sorry for your loss. And I wouldn’t have judged you harshly if you had smacked her in the face, because that is ridiculously insensitive. And while I’m guessing (hoping?) that she would be horrified to realize this, that statement says something truly insidious about how she views people with substance use disorders: that their lives aren’t worth living.

And that is some hot buttered bullshit.

In my day job one of my duties is to help people to not say such absurd things as “she’s in a better place” or “it’s God’s will,” or, funnily enough “at least now they are out of pain” to a person who is grieving. Like, any one of those things may ultimately be true (none of us will find out until we die ourselves), but there’s nothing in those statements that helps anyone other than the person who is attempting to ‘comfort’ the person experiencing loss.

In my experience, there’s nothing anyone can really say that will make these things better, but they can certainly say things that make them worse. I struggle with how to support people during times of loss, and I’m sure I’ve said the wrong thing at times.

In the moment, if you’re able to (although it’s understandable if you don’t feel up to it), one suggested response can be to acknowledge that they mean well, and then share that what they’ve said is quite hurtful. This isn’t one of those things that you should just let go, because they should want to realize the harm they’ve caused you in that moment, and also they should want to be made aware off this so that they don’t cause the same harm to others in the future.

For example:
You: “I’m a little out of it today, I’m sorry. My friend died of a drug overdose last week, and I’m still just trying to process it all.”
Means-Well Woman: “Well maybe it is for the best. At least now the pain is over.”
You: “I recognize where you’re coming from, and that it is so hard to figure out what to say to someone in grief, but I want you to know that such a comment is really not helpful. I know you didn’t mean it, but that feels like you’re saying their life wasn’t valuable because they were in pain.”
MWW: “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean that at all, I just meant -”
You: “I know, but I’m telling you because grieving is hard, and I know it’s awkward for everyone, so maybe in the future just stick with ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’”

For those wondering if you’ve put your foot in your mouth in a similar situation, don’t worry: you probably have. But that’s okay. Just keep these things in mind.

It is fairly likely that you don’t know what they are going through. You may have the unfortunate ability to relate closely, but if you have not experienced the same type of loss, don’t say “I know how you feel.” Similarly, don’t try to compare grief. If they lost a child, it’s not helpful to start with “I know that when I lost my mother…” They aren’t the same.

That said, if they know you’ve experienced a loss and ask for help, if you’re in a place where you can, I hope you will offer it. If there were things you did that helped you process your grief or adjust to this new normal, share that.

Don’t make assumptions about how the surviving friends and family are feeling. If the person died after a long illness, don’t say anything like “they’re in a better place” or “at least their suffering is over.” The surviving friends and family might say that, and might be feeling that, but it’s up to them to express that. It’s not your call.

Similarly, don’t make assumptions of faith. Comments like “I guess God needed another angel” aren’t soothing — and might possibly be enraging — to an atheist.

Finally, don’t say things like “You’ll meet someone new someday” to a widow, or (yes, this has happened) “You can have another one” to someone who has lost a child. Again, whether what you’re saying is true or not is irrelevant; the goal is to comfort, not dismiss the person they’ve lost as replaceable or expendable.

Again, I’m so sorry for your loss, and I hope that you have the support you need.

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