I found myself at a complete loss for words…and as a writer of greeting cards, that is not my usual M.O.
Sadly, on not just one but on three separate occasions in recent years, I received the mind-numbing news that a dear friend had suffered the sudden and shocking loss of a husband at a far-too-young age. Each of these friends had NO time to say goodbye, NO warning of what was to come…and NOTHING to help them prepare for their tragic loss.
Having lost both of my parents in the past 10 years, I was not a stranger to grief, but these sudden losses were the kind I was used to reading about in the news…the kinds of things that happened to OTHER people. The deaths of my friends’ husbands hit far too close to home…and while I couldn’t begin to imagine the depth of loss these women were experiencing, I was not immune to the shock waves of pain I felt from just knowing them. Suddenly, this subject became a lot more personal to me.
These deaths were not only unexpected, their circumstances were most unlikely. Sigrid’s husband died during a morning bike ride; Joanne’s husband never woke from an afternoon nap; and Shannon’s husband tragically drowned in the ocean while swimming with his son. All three deaths were attributed to heart issues, but these men were otherwise healthy and in the prime of their lives.
I have no idea what words I may have expressed to each friend upon hearing their terrible news, but as one who makes a living helping people share words of comfort during times like these, it was important for me to better understand what may have helped my friends cope with their loss.
I have always found writing messages for sympathy cards and serious illness a challenge, albeit a rewarding one. Helping people express their feelings when it matters most is a privilege and one I take to heart. My experience as a writer has taught me it’s often not how much you say, but what you don’t say that is important. Simply letting someone who’s suffering know they occupy a space in your heart can be so meaningful. Everyone’s experience with grief is different and very personal. The gesture of sending a sympathy or thinking-of-you card means the most when it includes some personal words from the sender, especially a memory or story about the loved one.
While I know there are countless books and articles written on this topic, it was important to me to learn this knowledge in an authentic way…directly from my friends.
I asked each of them two simple questions:
- What words or gestures from others offered you comfort in dealing with your grief?
- What words or gestures, while well intentioned, were not comforting…and were maybe even hurtful to you?
I’m sharing my friends’ responses in their own words.
- Don’t ask me “How are you?” I’m not OK. (Instead, you might ask me, “How are you doing this afternoon?”)
- Don’t ask me what I need! I don’t know!
- Don’t be afraid that you may make me cry…or laugh! I want to hear your memories, stories, recollections. My tears help to cleanse me, to heal me. My laughter helps me to celebrate my time with my loved one and gives me strength.
- Don’t say, “Call if you need anything,” because I do not want to impose. Just DO something nice for me without being asked.
– Words that do NOT help:
- “I know just how you feel.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “(He’s) in a better place now.”
- “You’ll feel better with time.”
- “God works in mysterious ways.”
- Understand that my grief is different from anyone else’s. It is long-lasting, and it comes to me in waves.
- Show me you care by sending cards, letters, texts and emails.
- Add a personal note to my sympathy or thinking-of-you card. I especially appreciate memories about my loved one. These memories mean the world to me and let me know that my (husband’s) life made a difference to you and others.
- When writing me a message, just be yourself. Simple yet genuine words let me know you care.
- Share your stories and photos with me.
- Please keep me in your thoughts. Receiving cards and thoughtful gestures for months or even years later really made me feel loved. One friend sent me a thinking-of-you card once a month for six months. That was really special.
- Honor anniversaries and special occasions. When I heard nothing from my family and friends in remembrance of our wedding anniversary, I was really hurt.
- Sending me small gift cards for coffee or a meal are so appreciated. Small gestures make a big difference.
- SHOW UP – in person, via email or text, in a card or a letter. Show your love with actions:
- Take my kids for an afternoon.
- Pick up some food items for me from the grocery store.
- Bring me a prepared meal.
- Ask me to go for a drink.
- Take me to a movie.
- Take me to a park to go for a walk.
- Just give me a chance to talk.
– Words that help me:
- “I know this is a really difficult time for you.”
- “I am here for you.”
- “I can’t even begin to imagine how you are feeling.”
- “I care.”
- “Call me whenever you may need to talk.”
The above feedback from my friends gave me a lot of insight into the kinds of words and gestures that have helped them heal.
I am so grateful for their openness and willingness to share their experiences with all of us so that we, in turn, can help others as they journey through grief.
I honor Sigrid, Joanne, and Shannon for their courage, their strength, and their grace in the ways each of them have handled their loss. May they have continued healing and warm memories to carry in their hearts.