“Be Strong” Is Wrong (for Grieving Friends)

When someone dies, don’t tell survivors how strong they are. Tell them you’ll be strong beside them so they don’t have to — and follow through.

The first times people called me strong after my husband died, I had no idea how to respond. Their expressions and tones made it clear they’d intended to compliment me, but I couldn’t accept their words. I’d look at them, thinking, How can I say the expected “thank you” to such a blatant lie? 

I was as fragile as dandelion fluff.

Mourning made my feelings as fragile as overripe dandelion fluff. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

The truth was, I was broken, shattered into a million loosely gathered shards. The softest puff of sympathy or the least gust of gruffness might send my fragmented psyche as irretrievably into the wind as overripe dandelions in the hands (and breath) of enthused toddlers.

I was not strong. And it puzzled me that anyone might think I was.

I cried all the time. All. The. Time.

Everyday chores I’d mastered years earlier now confused me.

New tasks (including seemingly endless death-related business matters) overwhelmed me.

The sudden, sole responsibilities of single parenting had my knees buckling.

Strong, I was not. But that’s what was expected (and even demanded) of me. “Don’t cry,” some said. “You have to be strong for your daughters.”

Such words (though intended as encouragement) deeply shamed me. Being anyone else’s rock is a heavy burden when you’re scarcely able to hold onto yourself. 

Didn’t they realize how much strength seeped from me in getting out of bed each morning? Didn’t they know how much energy I exerted just remembering to breathe? Had they no idea how sucked away my strength felt after days and weeks and months of only sparse, grief- and nightmare-riddled, interrupted naps instead of genuine sleep?

Telling me how strong I was didn’t feel like a compliment. It felt like being told I could and should be able to handle everything on my own.

But I couldn’t.

Telling me I was strong didn’t make me feel capable. It made me feel like I wasn’t worthy of asking for help.

So I didn’t.

Sorrow saps strength. Grieving grinds it away. Bereavement burdens and bruises the body. Mourning makes mincemeat of memory.

So step in.

How can you offer your strength to grieving friends?

  • Help your mourning friends with physical tasks like mowing the lawn or shoveling snow or washing the car or doing the dishes and laundry. (*See important note about this below!)
  • Go along on emotionally charged errands (like changing car titles, account names, or banking business into the survivors’ names). Don’t make general offers like “call me if you want me to go” — they won’t. Instead, be specific: “Can I take you to the auto tag office Thursday afternoon to help you transfer the title into your name?” or “Would Tuesday or Wednesday be better for me to drive you to the Social Security office to submit the claim for the kids’ benefits?” or “The minute the funeral home says you can pick up the death certificates, call me. I want to help.”
  • Look out for your bereaved friends’ health. Bring a healthy meal, invite your friends on nature walks, share your favorite sleep soundtrack, take them for a massage, mention you need your own six-month dental cleaning and ask if they need you to call their dentist to schedule theirs …
  • Make a list. Mourning makes remembering anything a challenge. Write down tasks your friend might mention in passing. Offer reminders of appointments. Write down memories of their deceased loved one. Write down all the kindnesses other friends extend to your grieving mutual friend.
  • Be present. The loneliness of mourning a person missing from your life is difficult to describe. Acknowledge your awareness your friend is hurting. Sometimes the bereaved need reminders they (the deceased and the bereaved) aren’t forgotten and that they are valued for themselves — not just for who they used to be in relation to the ones no longer living. If you live nearby, sitting in silence alongside your friends will strengthen them just by your willingness to witness their sorrow. If you live far from them, you can still be “present” with phone calls, texts, instant messages, and even old-fashioned snail mail.

Here’s the irony:

Now, five-plus years later, I can honestly say, I’ve become strong. I’ve had to.  I’ve become stronger than my pre-widowed self could have imagined. The bones of my broken soul reknit into a construction of titanium lace.

But it took being broken — and much, much longer than six to eight weeks — to grow that strength.

(Sometimes, I also admit, the holes in that titanium knit lace soul of mine still feel more jagged than smooth, more broken than whole. Grieving, like living, is a process.)

___

*Please note: ALWAYS, Always, always ask before washing or putting away or cleaning up after the deceased person’s clothing, dishes, or even apparent trash! (Mourners may need and want to handle those newly sacred, last-touched items themselves.)

Avoid Blaming or Shaming Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One

This post topic may seem obvious. After all, who would be so cruel as to dump blame or shame onto someone who is grieving? Unfortunately, it happens. Whether by deliberate intent or unwitting ignorance, it piles deeper distress upon those already experiencing the worst moments of their lives.Shame smiley blackground

Intentional blame is easiest to recognize and, sadly, is most often inflicted by another loved one. (Generosity requires I attribute such meanness to being overwrought by grief.) Intentional shaming and blaming  is accusatory and attempts to “punish” the bereaved or the deceased. It can be based in logic or completely without foundation.

“If you’d fed her the right way, she’d have never gotten sick.”
“If he’d been behind the wheel then he’d still be here; we should be burying you instead.”
“She’d have never gotten sick if you hadn’t taken that job.”
“He was healthy as a horse until he met you.”
“She’d still be with us if she hadn’t been such a lousy housekeeper.”

Unwitting or accidental blame is harder to recognize and, for the most part, is ascribed by well-meaning  but thoughtless friends, coworkers, and family.  It usually takes the shape of questions meant to better inform the would-be comforter. It can also be stated in misguided attempts to show “understanding.”

“Why didn’t you take him to the doctor at the first sign of trouble?” (Implies: if you had taken him then, he’d be fine now.)
“How come you sent her to that store that night?” (Implies: if you hadn’t sent her, she’d be fine.)
“Don’t you know CPR? So why’d he die?” (Implies: knowing CPR would have meant he’d survive.)
“If it had been my little one, I’d have found another doctor.” (Implies: mourner “should” have known more/better/different treatment was needed.)
“I’m glad I made my teenager take a defensive driving class.” (Implies: if you’d made yours take the class they’d still be okay.)

Questions and statements such as these only make the bereaved feel worse.  By stopping to think of the hidden implications of questions and comments you make to someone whose loved one has died, you can guard against unintentionally inflicting deeper pain.

(For anyone who has already willingly assaulted survivors with accusations, please reconsider. Apologies can mend some wounds, including your own.)

Tell the Bereaved, “I’m Thinking about You.”

First, say something. Anything. Acknowledge that you know the loss occurred.

Six months after my husband’s death, I finally came face to face with one neighbor I’d previously spoken with on a regular basis. I’d been hurt that neither spouse had spoken to me since that awful night. Deciding it was time to take the initiative for myself, the next time I saw one of them, I called out a friendly greeting.

“Hey, good morning!” You’d think I’d done something hideous, so flustered was my neighbor. Before the poor soul could recompose and skedaddle, I added, “I’m not sure if you heard about Bill …” (though I already knew that no one in the neighborhood had missed the ambulance coming and going that night).

My neighbor’s head bowed and nodded, as if in deep prayer, though the sheepish, muffled reply probably indicated shame rather than piety. In a few awkward sentences I learned that yes, they’d heard and yes, they were both very, very sorry. They’d wanted to come see me, but neither had known what to say so they’d actively avoided me (Ha! I was right!) so they wouldn’t face that discomfort. That was followed by a promise to come over “soon.”

Two and a half years later, they’ve yet to visit. Since that awkward talk, now they at least wave and return friendly “hellos” in passing, and I’m okay with that.

Second, tell the bereaved person HOW you’re thinking about him or her. Depending on your relationship to the one mourning the loss, here are some “starter ideas” you may wish to try:

  • I’m keeping you in my prayers. (good)
  • I’m keeping you in my prayers each time I pray. (better)
  • I’m sending positive thoughts your way. (good)
  • I’m sending positive thoughts your way each time I meditate [first thing every morning, every night before bedtime, etc.]. (better)
  • I know you miss your [partner, parent, sibling, pet, …]. (good)
  • I know you miss your [same as above]. If you’d like to talk about [same], I’d love to listen. (better)

The most important thing is to SAY SOMETHING to acknowledge the loss. If you haven’t done so yet, it’s not too late! A thoughtful expression of kindness is always welcome.