Now this is a question I get asked all the time. It’s also something I’ve heard around me for years– it’s an incredibly common question when you’ve just heard that someone you know has lost their parent or someone else close to them. “What can I say?”, “I don’t know what to say”, “what am I supposed to say?” or some other version of it. So I am going to answer it now.
So first things first, I’ll admit I’ve tricked you. There is no perfect thing to say. And there is nothing you absolutely must not say. We have all, at some point, been faced with the news that someone we know – maybe a friend, a colleague, an acquaintance – has lost their mum or dad. And we have all gone through that few seconds/minutes/hours (or days) of freaking out a little bit and thinking “sh*t, what should I say?!” – like there are some magic words and some words to avoid at all costs. Now I know you’ve been told before that there is no perfect thing to say. And that it didn’t help you one bit. So read on as I will take some of the edges off of this topic and make it easier for you to know what to say, and to be able to actually say something.
First, acknowledge what’s really going on for you
OK, so let’s get honest here. Our confusion around what to say doesn’t have anywhere near as much to do with them as it has to do with us. Death is not most people’s favourite topic and being faced with a reminder of it can be a bit uncomfortable for most, to say the least. So just be honest with yourself. You don’t have to say it out loud but if you are a bit nervous or scared, if you actually don’t really want to talk about it, if you are worried they might try to tell you all about it…. then acknowledge that this is what is going on for you. Half of the reason I am able to do the work I do and help people the way I do is because of everything I have been through, learnt and overcome, ……..and the other half is very simply that I’m not the least bit uncomfortable around death. Lots of people think they are ok with it but it’s a pretty rare thing.
So I’m not going to try to pull apart and resolve all of your fears. For the purpose of knowing what to say to someone else, just acknowledging these fears and thoughts will make it a lot easier.
I know you’re always told to think of others first but you won’t get much further than yourself if you don’t take a second or two to start with you and admit what you’re really feeling. Just note what is really going on for you. This will calm down some of that panic that you create just to avoid thinking about and owning up to what is scaring you. Acknowledge it, know it’s ok, then just take a deep breath.
Right, so when you’ve done that….
Get matter of fact about it. Because it is a matter of fact.
When someone close to you has passed away it can get pretty interesting the way people react to you and the things they say. People can practically dance around you trying to figure out what to do and say.
So let’s just get practical about this. This isn’t some weird, inexplicable, spooky thing that has happened. Someone they love has died. Fact. It can be painful and terrible and confusing and life-changing…….but these things make it no less of a factual event.
What I mean is that you might tiptoe around them – it has still happened. You may say something supportive….or something ridiculous – it has still happened. Maybe you’ll look them in the eye or not. Whatever you do or say…it has happened.
Read through these statements and see what your brain does. “I have lost my pen”….”I have lost my keys”…..”I have lost my wallet”….”I have lost my dog”…..”I have lost my Dad”. Now there was a point along that path of statements when things stopped being matter-of-fact to you about what I have lost and started getting a bit freaky. But though the impact is completely different none are more or less a fact than the others. I’m not being callous about it – but I want you to get the point that this is an event that has happened and though the meaning can change a lot the event is what it is. Whatever particular words you choose won’t change the fact of it one little bit.
If you avoid them, if you’re totally direct about it, if you try to say something all balanced and spiritual, or make a daft joke – what has happened has happened. You might avoid actually saying the words and skip around them instead but it is actually a lot easier for you and them to just say it out loud “I heard your Mum died. I’m really sorry”.
You aren’t going to make it better or worse right now. And you aren’t going to jinx your own life or those of your loved ones by talking about or thinking about death.
You aren’t alone is not knowing what to do or say
They don’t know either. This is a new situation for them too. Even if they’ve been through this kind of loss before, they haven’t lost this particular person before. Right now they are confused and frightened too. Despite sometimes contrary appearances they are struggling to know what to do and say with themselves, their family, and with you and others. They don’t know the perfect thing to do or say. You don’t have to either.
So what to actually say??
There is no perfect thing to say and no terrible thing you absolutely must not say. Heck whatever it is you say (or have said in the past) or don’t say, if you don’t say it someone else will. This isn’t as complicated as you think. There is nothing wrong with simply saying “I’m so sorry to hear about your mum”. Be honest with them and yourself. If you don’t know what to say, you can say “I’m sorry to hear about your Mum. I really don’t know what to say.”
You can say “I’m here if you need anything” – but don’t say it if you don’t mean it. If the last thing you want is to talk about this then fine, don’t say “you can call me day or night”. And that’s perfectly ok – there will be other people who can and will take that role.
I have heard some of the fluffiest clichés dished out. And some of the most fumbled attempts at a supportive comment. I’ve been given them…and I have given them myself.
It’s ok to ask them what they need instead of trying to figure out if they want to talk about it, don’t want to talk about it, want you around, want to be alone, need help with planning/cooking/work, etc. Just ask them.
So don’t beat yourself up about anything you have or haven’t said to someone in the past when they’ve lost someone. And if you are in this situation right now or in the future just be honest with yourself, be practical about it, and be honest with them. If you can say something, anything, just to let them know that you know what has happened and are thinking about them then that is enough and that is helpful. It isn’t all about what you do and say. Them just knowing that they are in other people’s thoughts when they are going through something as difficult as this makes a difference.