What NOT to Say to Someone Who is Grieving by Natasha Sholl
I was in my early 20s when my partner Rob died suddenly and unexpectedly. As I grappled with the loss, I was told to be grateful for the time we had together. That he wouldn’t want me to be sad. I was told I needed to be strong. That I was lucky I could find another partner and move on.
We call them unspeakable losses because we do not have the vocabulary to speak about them. Nine years after I lost my partner, I lost my older brother Matthew. He was 39. In the days that followed I was told that he wouldn’t want me to be sad. That I should be grateful for the time we had together. That I was lucky that I had another brother. I was told he was watching over us, which felt kind of creepy but also completely untrue. There was no deviation from the script.
We are hardwired to say these things when someone dies because otherwise, it would be too much. Human nature is to put boundaries around the loss, so we know it’s something that happens to other people. We say that they’re in a better place or to just remember the good times, because if we spoke the truth, that tragedy comes for us all, that sometimes life is random and cruel and painful and beyond comprehension, I mean, how would we even function? So, we speak in platitudes. They roll off our tongue. But they don’t help the person who is grieving, they exist to comfort the person on the other side of the loss, those bearing witness to the grief.
‘I could never...’ people say to those who continue to put one foot in front of the other, as if we have some choice in the matter. Yet it’s just another attempt at ‘othering’ the person. I was no more prepared for my life to implode than anyone else. I was no stronger, braver, more equipped to manage the situation. We position those grieving as somehow superhuman, which is easier than acknowledging that there is nothing more intrinsically human than grief.
The world wants to see post-traumatic growth. It wants to see happy endings. In the worst moments of my life, people were telling me that I would learn from this. Come out the other side with a greater appreciation for the small things, as if my brother’s death was some kind of narrative plot device. As if it was a tool for character development and not a tragedy in its own right. Not only do people want you to experience grief and loss unscathed, you must emerge a better person.
‘How is your mum?’ people asked me, following the sudden death of her second-born child. Though it was less of a question and more of a statement. ‘She’s okay, in the circumstances,’ I said, as if by rote. This was the answer people wanted and so I gave it to them, though I was lying. ‘I can’t even imagine,’ they said. Although they could, they were lying too. They were imagining it as the words left their lips. Those experiencing the grief don’t have the luxury of imagination. We are living it. Whether you can or can’t imagine it (and you can) doesn’t change anything. All you are saying is: I tried on your life for a split second and it terrified me.
In an effort to help, people try to shrink the loss, to minimise the very real experience of grief. At least they are no longer in pain. At least you got to say goodbye. At least they didn’t battle a long illness. At least, at least, at least, at least. The ‘at leasts’ pile up and contradict each other. But there is no comfort comparing your situation to someone else’s worst day. And by which measure is someone else’s circumstance ‘worse’ than your own anyway? Someone died. The context is irrelevant. It’s part of the false dichotomy of gratitude culture that wants you to only look at what you have and not at what you’ve lost. This is not a glass half full situation.
We tell those grieving to move on. We hear that we need to get over the loss. Over. On. As if it is something to be climbed. And this is what is missing from the language of loss. It fails to acknowledge that the grief is not a separate entity. It exists within us, and wherever we go, it will follow.
At the kitchen table, as family and friends gathered, there was a moment of silence, and then someone mentioned Matthew’s name. Shared a story about him that we’d heard a thousand times before. Someone else added memories of their own. Stories that were brand new. And so it went. We gave each other permission to feel the extent of the loss and the heaviness of the grief. And it changed shape. Lost its spikey edges and became something else entirely. Because this is the power of words. There was a promise in everything said and unsaid that the grief we felt would not live in the past but would be carried forward. It would be shared.