Never Tell Mourners You Know How They Feel

Yesterday I heard the umpteen-hundredth expression of “I know what you’re going through.” I felt as angry this time as I have every time well-meaning people sympathized with the same sentiment over the last three and a half years. Equally infuriating is hearing “I know exactly how you feel.”

No, you don’t.

I’ve attempted civility by biting my tongue. (Yesterday I bit my lips together, too.) When in person, I’ve tried to neutralize my facial expression and body language, and over the phone I’ve modulated my voice with care. Grief (and repeated experience over and over and over) can inspire Academy Award-worthy performances, I’ve learned.

Inside my head, though, each time someone tells me they “know” how I feel, my honest response is more visceral than a simple “No, you don’t.” Fight-or-flight takes over. My heart hammers as claws and fangs extend, my legs tense as if readying to spring, and my mouth screams, snarls, and spits the red-inked, italicized, underlined, highlighted, bold-faced, all caps reply: NO! YOU. DON’T. KNOW!

Even at my most feral moments, I acknowledge that most of those who say such things are trying to relate their pain to mine. They want to empathize, which is a good thing. Their claims, however, do the opposite. Asserting their acquaintanceship with my deeply personal pain and my struggles through grieving minimizes the unique nature of my loss, and minimizing a mourner’s experience is never a good thing. Never. Not ever.

Every relationship is unique, so no two losses are the same. When a person loses a loved one, that loss colors every aspect of life. It creates irrevocable change. It is devastating and overwhelming and pervasive and personal. When I was newly widowed, very few widowers or widows made such a claim to me. Instead, they acknowledged aspects of my loss that they didn’t share. Rather than minimizing my experience by comparison to their own, they validated the multifaceted components of my overturned, grief-ridden world.

Need an example of what offered helpful acknowledgement rather than hurtful comparison? Here are a few:

“I can’t imagine what you’re going through. It must be awful that you didn’t have the chance to say goodbye.”
“I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I know it isn’t the same, but I know how badly I hurt over my husband’s death.”
“I wish I could say something to make it better, but I know my words can’t help. I’m here to listen to you.”
“When my husband died we’d already raised our kids and retired. I can’t imagine what this is like for you.”
“I lost my [loved one of whatever relationship], but I know it isn’t the same. I’m so sorry.”

As I recalled and wrote the examples above, I thought, “How bleak they sound …” The truth is that in the bleakest of life’s circumstances — the loss of a loved one — the most easily absorbed consolation comes in compassionate yet dispassionate commiseration. There will be time for cheering and lightening in the weeks and months and years to come (so stick around to help provide that in its eventual time), but in the meantime, in the immediacy of the misery of the loss, acknowledging the darkness will help your friend adjust better than stories of how you made it through your own dark times — unless your friend asks for them.

You don’t know what a mourner is going through — even if you think you do. In fact, the same should be said of other sources of trial and bereavement in life. Death isn’t the only cause of grief; a true friend will acknowledge the unique, acute, life-altering nature of the bereaved’s pain.

Michelle L. wrote You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know for the Segullah.org blog on April 17, 2014. While her writing addresses other kinds of life trials facing “broken and struggling families,” her admonitions equally apply to comforting and supporting the bereaved. With her permission to share this, I’m quoting Michelle L.’s main points below, but please visit her post (http://segullah.org/daily-special/you-dont-know-what-you-dont-know/) to see the full text.

  1. If you read nothing else, remember this: extend love; refrain from judgment.
  2. Don’t even talk about taking sides. … When a family is destroyed, there isn’t a side to take.
  3. You don’t know what you don’t know. Don’t make assumptions. 
  4. Offer kindness to those who are broken. The very best words to say: “I’m so sorry you are hurting.”
  5. Avoid trite phrases. 
  6. Your experience doesn’t translate into mine. 
  7. Don’t make assumptions about anyone’s spiritual state. 
  8. Statistics don’t matter. 
  9. Don’t offer advice or chastisement. 
  10. Talk about other subjects. Look beyond the wounds to the whole person. 

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