If you haven’t been there…

Before January, I didn’t know what to say to a friend who lost a loved one.  My grandmother died a few years back, but she was bed-ridden and couldn’t talk anymore.  I don’t know for sure if she was suffering, but even if she wasn’t suffering physically, what kind of life is that?  Of course I’m sad that she died but she was also released into God’s arms and can run and walk and sing again if she wants.  My cousin died- he was young and vibrant and that hurt a lot.  But he was “only my cousin” so a lot of people just didn’t understand the pain and tears that came with his death.  Friends just didn’t mention it.  I also lived in different country with people who never knew him, so it was easy for them to mumble, “sorry” and move on with their day.  But when Mom died- well, the outpouring of sympathy was amazing.  I didn’t know she was so loved and it was good to hear.

What is not good to hear is people sympathizing or offering advice.  Here’s the thing- if you haven’t been there, just say, “I’m sorry for your loss.  You and your family is in my prayers.”  If you’re not the praying-kind, you can substitute “thoughts” for “prayers”… which in my mind are essentially the same because if you’re “thinking” of me, you’re probably hoping that my pain and sadness will ease or that I’ll be strong enough to deal with this loss… and who are you talking to when you hope for these things…?  Hmmmm…?

I digress.  Sometimes people just need to talk and they need a sympathetic ear.  Sometimes, they want you to understand their pain.  Sometimes they want prayers.  Usually, unless they ask for advice, they don’t want it.  And you don’t need to feel pressured to give it.  You don’t need to feel pressured to tell them a story of something ‘sort of like that’ that happened to you or your cousin or your mother’s uncle’s sister’s friend.  Just listen.  Don’t tell me ‘it’ll get better,’ or ‘stop thinking about it,’ or ‘it’s all God’s plan.’  Because I don’t need to hear that.  I need a “poor baby,” or “Gosh, that must be hard,” or, “I’m praying for you.”  That’s all.

Because if you haven’t been there, you don’t understand.  And if you don’t understand, your “advice” only hurts me. 


2 thoughts on “If you haven’t been there…

  1. This is a really good post, Kelli. I totally agree with all you've said, including the fact that if you haven't been there, you generally don't know what to say. Less is probably more, but it is not OK to just not say anything because you are uncomfortable. Your friend WILL notice that you didn't say anything.

    Two other things that come to my mind:
    1. Don't make it a competition. While I did find it comforting for people to say that they'd also lost a parent, so they knew where I was coming from, some people just want to tell you about every death/tragedy they've ever been through. I'm sure it's a discomfort thing, but the fact that your grandma died when you were 8 and you were sad does NOT compare to what I am going through, nor does it make me feel better.

    2. Please don't tell your friend that you are praying for them or send very religious cards unless you know that they are religious. Again, it's better than saying nothing; but as someone who is not religious at all, very religious sentiments are not comforting AT ALL. I know that it is comforting to many people and if you know that person's faith, then that's fine, but don't just assume that everyone has the same beliefs. Just say, “you are in my thoughts.”

    Sorry for writing such a long comment – I guess I have a lot of opinions about this!


  2. Thanks Cristin. Suggestion #2 is good- of course this is written from my perspective and I don't mind people sending up some prayers for me, but others might. When I offer condolences or sympathy, I myself always say “thoughts.” But I might secretly be praying 😉


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