Expressing sympathy isn’t rocket science

After the death of my infant grandson in December 2016, my husband’s tragic death on April 30th of this year, followed seven weeks later by my mother’s death, my family has been the recipient of both kind and what are really thoughtless comments from people who are trying to express their sympathies. My friends shared some of the best, and worst, things said to them during times of grief, and several have asked me to compile them. This doesn’t begin to include everything that we, or others grieving, have heard. I’ve tried to categorize them.

Comments based on faith

  • God needed another angel
  • S/he is in a better place
  • God has a plan
  • You should have prayed more (said by a minister to the widow)

These comments dismiss the tremendous grief being experienced with a simple solution of faith. It also assumes that all people involved share the same set of beliefs. Don’t ever assume identical beliefs, even if the grieving person sits next to you in your place of worship. As for the angel comment, if your children/spouse/friends are all safely at home at the end of the day, who are you to say any deity needed their loved person as another angel?

To grieving parents

  • You are young enough to have more children
  • At least you didn’t have her/him so long that you were strongly attached (said to parents of recently adopted children)
  • At least you have other children

    To grieving spouses
  • You are reasonably attractive and can get married again (said by a mother-in-law to the widow)
  • You’ll meet someone else
  • You have plenty of time to marry again

Death related to an illness

  • Did s/he smoke? When did they quit?
  • S/he should have gone to a different doctor
  • Why didn’t s/he go to the doctor sooner?
  • They should have exercised, eaten better, etc.

Death due to a tragic accident

  • People shouldn’t ride bikes there
  • Did s/he suffer?
  • May be if they had been with you instead of……

This list could go on forever because there seems to be no limit on thoughtless things people let come out of their mouths.

There are things to say (and do) that are helpful.

  • I am so very sorry. Expressing sympathy doesn’t require rocket science or an advanced degree. This simple statement is fine.
  • I don’t know what you are feeling but I want to support you
  • Would it help if I sleep on the sofa in case you need someone to talk to during the night?
  • I will miss spending time with ______. I’d like to share some stories with you when you are ready (and then follow up, accepting responses of “Not now but later” and then checking again).
  • Can I walk the dog? Cut the grass? Pick up things at the drug store? Go to the cleaners? Get your car serviced? Are there foods your family would like to have right now? Write thank you notes? Make calls? Return books to the library?
  • Say the person’s name.  Don’t be afraid to mention a lost loved one when you speak to someone grieving.  Share or listen to a thought or story about his or her lost loved one.  Take the time to really engage.

After the immediacy of the services have passed, check-in with the grieving. Ask about birthday and special family anniversaries so you can offer support or an invitation. Send a postcard or note with a simple message saying you are thinking about them. Take them a meal. Only offer to do things if you can follow up-really. And those offers don’t have to be huge-coffee, lunch, a movie. Did the grieving person go to plays, concerts, art shows, etc. with the person who has died? Find those events and invite them because you know they did those things together.

As we mark the year’s last holidays, there will be many hard firsts for my family, and hard moments (or days and weeks) for those whose grief is not immediate but still real. A college friend called and left me a message saying that she was thinking about me as we approach these firsts, and she wanted to let me know.

Her message was beautiful in its simplicity and sincerity. And it was just what I needed.

Judge by actions, not words

Kellyanne Conway, former campaign manager for Donald Trump, told CNN that people should stop judging the President-elect by his words, and instead judge him by his heart.

OK. Let’s use his actions as a measure of his heart.

Trump mocked a reporter who is physically disabled.

Beauty pageant contestants said he would walk into dressing rooms while they were nude and not excuse himself immediately.

The President-elect has been taken to court by contractors he refuses to pay.

He agreed to a settlement of $25M in lawsuits brought against the defunct Trump University including a penalty due to the state of New York for claiming to operate a “university” when it wasn’t one.

Trump cheated on his first wife, Ivana Trump, with the woman who became his second wife, Marla Maples.

Although he has five children, Trump refuses to do any of the physical care of his children.

Trump picked a fight with Khizi and Ghazala Kahn, whose son was killed in military action.

If we let Trump’s actions serve as the measure of his heart, that isn’t any more encouraging than his words or Tweets.