Speak the Names of the Dead

what to say when someone dies

Speak the Names of the Dead (word cloud created on WordItOut.com)

People often mistakenly worry they’ll “make” grieving survivors feel sad by mentioning or alluding to their friends’ deceased loved ones. They’re afraid speaking up will remind them of the loss. There are two reasons this isn’t so:

  • You can’t “remind” a person of something they cannot (and should not and don’t want to) forget. Grief is rooted in love, and that love doesn’t die with the deceased. For the one grieving, no matter the relationship — bereaved parent, sibling, child, grandparent, best friend, spouse, aunt, uncle, niece, cousin, in-law, or other loving mourner — the loss is never forgotten. With time — more time than you can possibly imagine unless you’ve mourned a similar loss — the sadness will thin from a suffocating deluge to a gentle mist that moistens but no longer threatens drowning. It may at times seem imperceptible, but it never evaporates completely.
  • Most people who mourn loved ones fear that others will forget them. They may feel they have to hold tighter to the memories of their dear dead ones — because if they don’t, who will remember? Hearing others speak their dear ones’ names acknowledges they aren’t — and won’t be — forgotten. It frees them to mourn without fear of losing their memories.

Yes, your friends’ eyes may glisten (or pour) when you speak their loved ones’ names, but that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes grief fills a mourner full to bursting — and tears act as a pressure release valve.

It’s been nearly five years since my husband’s death and nearly twenty years since my mom’s. My life is rich and full (sometimes too full) and I’ve learned to live with the grief I still — yes, still — feel for them. (Thank heaven I’m way past the awful days, er, months when I blurted out variations of “My husband died” to everyone I encountered.)

But there are days when grief gets ugly again, not just for me, but for everyone who has lost someone dear. It sneaks up behind us and whispers cruel doubts about whether anyone else still cares they’re gone, about our ability to keep on keeping on, about the disloyalty of moving forward in our lives without them.

Those are some of the days when we most need to hear others speak their names. Tell us stories of what they did — good or bad.* If you knew them, tell us you miss them, too (no matter how long it’s been). If you didn’t know them, tell us you remember (and understand) that missing them goes on . . . long after they have.


*I realized after writing this that part of my thinking (and post title) draws on echoes of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Its title character cautions survivors that he will speak the truth — the full truth — about the dead they wish memorialized.

Comfort after Mom’s Funeral

When my mom’s mother died, I was a preteen child. I remember looking up as grandma’s best friend put her arms around my mom and cried along with her. Through her own tears, she told my mom, “I know I’ll never replace your mother, but I’ll try to mother you for her.”

Twenty years later, after my mom’s funeral, that same dear woman (who was then widowed and had long since become Mom’s best friend) embraced me and said, “I know how much it hurt when I lost my mama. It has been years and years, and sometimes it still breaks me up. I won’t tell you it will stop hurting, because you never lose the hurt when you miss the ones you love. But it won’t always hurt as much or as deeply as it does now. One day you’ll feel the sweetness of your love as much as the pain.

I found comfort in her acknowledgement of my grief. Her words validated the pain I felt. They promised I wouldn’t forget the love I’d always felt from my mom. They assured my love for her would remain significant, even in her absence.

In that time and place of acute, agonizing new loss, I didn’t want to hear anything that diminished the significance of my grief.

  • I knew I wasn’t the only person to have had a loved one die, but I didn’t want my grief compared to theirs.
  • It was helpful to hear, “I know how much I hurt when my mom died. I’m here for you,” but it never helped to hear people say, “I know exactly how you feel,” because they didn’t lose my mother.
  • I was grateful that Mom no longer suffered from the cancer that killed her, but I hated hearing other people say, “At least she’s not suffering anymore.” 
  • I fully believed then and continue to believe now that my mother’s soul IS “in a better place,” but it felt hurtful and trite to hear would-be consolers say, “You can take comfort that she’s in a better place now,” because the important, essential fact was that she was gone.

I didn’t want to hear that I would stop hurting, because in that moment of bereavement when my LOSS surrounded me, the pain of mourning preserved my connection to Mom. To think of not missing her or to consider that I might stop mourning her felt like thinking of dismissing the bond between us and dismissing the significance of her role in my life.

I was pregnant with our second daughter when Dad’s mother died, and I was pregnant with our youngest daughter when my mom died. I can’t count how many well-meaning souls attempted to console me by saying, “At least you have the new baby to look forward to,” as if I should be content and ignore my grief because welcoming a new life should “undo” my bereavement over the end of my grandmother’s life — and then over my mother’s. As much as I glowed and grinned in the anticipation of each child’s arrival, I grieved for their yet-unborn losses, too, knowing they’d never get to know their great-grandma who’d nurtured and inspired me as much in my adulthood as she had in my childhood. I mourned for my youngest, that she’d never know the grandmother who’d rejoiced in putting as much loving energy into her too-brief years of grand-mothering as she’d put into decades of mothering me.

The condolences that offered me the greatest comfort in my new, raw grief (as a granddaughter, a daughter, and more recently as a widow) were the simplest, most spontaneous and heartfelt expressions of acknowledgment:

  • I’m sorry. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m so sorry to learn of the death of your mother, your grandmother, your husband.
  • I wish I knew what to say. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.
  • This is awful news. I’m devastated for you.
  • I’m keeping you in my thoughts. You’re in my prayers.