Bereavement — What Can I Say?

Death makes people uncomfortable. People will do anything to keep their equilibrium, their own personal illusion that they are not going to die, and no one wants to be the one to upset the person who is starting to get their life back together. So what can people do? From my position on the frontline I would say — acknowledge it. Acknowledge it, please.

I have been taking time off from blogging, and, in fact, from the rest of my working life, due to my mother’s death almost two months ago. The grief is still fresh, although it has been knocked off course slightly by other traumatic family events. But I am going to write anyway, because I have something to say.

Death makes people uncomfortable. People will do anything really to keep their equilibrium, their own personal illusion that they are not going to die and neither are their loved ones. In the first moments after a death, the illusion cannot be maintained and people tend to reach out and make connections, share simple human warmth. But as soon as death is far enough away that the illusion can start to build again, people at enough of a remove to be able to do so, will distance themselves from the grief. There are ways of practically supporting the mourners, and even keeping the relationship going strong while subtly and surely ignoring the gaping wound. This can give the mourner the feeling that they are going mad.

On the other hand, no one wants to be the one to upset the person who is starting to get their life back together. So what can people do?

From my position on the frontline I would say — acknowledge it. Acknowledge it, please.

It does not need to be some carefully thought out response which accurately reflects exactly what you mean, although sympathy cards in which people do just that are beautiful to receive. In fact it doesn’t have to reflect you in any way at all, because the person who is mourning is mainly occupied with a relationship which no one else can see. They may be re-running events leading up to the death, they may have a constant film of their childhood going all day long, they may have their own personal web cam tuned in live to the graveyard where their loved one lies now. They may not be able to think or “see” at all, being consumed in an animal kind of grief. They are certainly unlikely to be judging you or even able to perceive you properly. “I’m so sorry” suffices.

“I’m so sorry” or something else which does no more than acknowledge the situation and express warmth acts as a bridge. It does not necessarily get you very close, but without it, there is a terrible gulf between you and the mourner. In my experience, I simply have no living relationship with the very few people I know who did not say “I’m sorry”. We carry on, but the spark, the real contact is gone and will be gone until the bridge is built.

So while it is not the case that people have to say “the right thing”, instincts are very strong while grieving. I can just feel when someone, while talking to me, and expressing sympathy, is actually trying to walk past on the other side of the road from my real feelings, and it makes me feel lonely.

I can feel when someone is going through their own masses of grief, reactivated by mine; these connections are often red hot, and a great release. I can feel when they have not gone through some grief of their own and are desperate not to. They sometimes say deeply unhelpful things like “it was meant to be”. These may be hard earned personal conclusions but they are not slogans that take pain away. Nothing, in fact, takes the pain away.

I can also feel when someone is simply moved and comes closer, just to be there, in the midst of this awful pain which no one chooses and no one can avoid. Thank you all.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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