What do you say to someone who is grieving or ill?
It’s not hard to find articles on the web that give you advice on what not to say. Some might even give you examples of better things to say. But I’d like to go further and talk about why certain things work and others don’t. I’d like to help you understand what is happening, and I’ll give you a simple rule to deal with these delicate situations.
Imagine you saw a movie with some friends. It’s a story about a man and a woman.
She had overcome earlier adversity and found a creative job that she loved. He came from a traditional family. He worked in an insurance company and volunteered at the animal shelter in his spare time. They seemed meant for each other.
Unfortunately, disaster strikes.
Your heart sinks at the bad turn of events. Just then, your friend says:
“I’m sure they’ll be okay.”
“Time heals everything.”
“The director has a plan. We just don’t see it yet.”
“At least she has a nice dress.”
“It’s better to have loved and lost.”
“They shouldn’t have rushed things.”
A number of things go through your mind. How does he know how the story will unfold? You don’t care about her dress while her world crumbles around her. Maybe it would have been better if you didn’t bring your friend to the movies. You’re so annoyed you tell your friend to shut up.
What happened here? Why were your friend’s comments so inappropriate and jarring?
We need to understand that stories progress in meaningful ways. The first half of a movie is used to establish the background. That’s where we learn to love the characters. Something bad happens. We feel the hopelessness of the moment. We wonder if the characters will discover their own resilience and resourcefulness and survive.
The problem with your friend’s comments is that they assume knowledge of the future, force a positive spin on things, or impose random judgment on the story. None of them honor the story up to that point (how they fell in love), respect the current moment in the movie (the hopelessness), or help move things forward (what next?).
Things are of course even more complex when people are grieving or ill. All the meaning associated with their previous lives is now turned upside down. Every day they could go through several conflicting emotions. And they’re not sure how to move forward. To support them, we should try to take into account their personal histories and strengths (eg. you wouldn’t say the same things to Muhammed Ali that you might have said to Stephen Hawking). We should listen and let them talk about what they’re going through, instead of forcing them to switch emotional gears. We should help them move forward with small, concrete favors.
Let me sum it all up with one simple rule. If you wouldn’t say something in the middle of a movie, then you shouldn’t say it to others in real life. A movie, just as life, can be a complex experience with many emotions. We can carelessly say random stuff, or we can help people honor, recognize, and manage their experiences.