What (Not) to Say in Crisis

DC Widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley's desk with note that says you are loved

Right after Shawn died, lots of people tried to say things to me that were supposed to be comforting.  Most of these sayings reminded me of Hallmark cards, even if they were heartfelt (i.e. “I’m thinking of you in this difficult time.”)  Other times, people stumbled over their words, trying to find the right thing to say.  Sometimes, people said nothing at all.

(As a note, I think saying nothing at all is the worst.  Better to mess up and say something annoying/imperfect than to ignore a terrible situation.  Even if it’s been a year or two and you still haven’t said anything to someone who’s grieving, you can do it now.  It’s never too late.)

Sometimes, people said the wrong things to me when I was hurting.  They weren’t trying to make me feel worse, but they did.

Once, when I was hurting really badly, a friend said to me, “it’s still early.  Moving through grief takes time.”  She was right, of course.  But in that moment, I thought, “I can’t do this any longer.  I have to have this pain lessen.  I know it won’t end anytime soon but can’t it get a bit better?”  (As a note, I’ve had a number of friends say this to me, but end with, “I know that doesn’t help because it sucks right now” and that always makes me feel much more understood.)

Later, when I was thinking about dating, I was telling someone how I was intimidated by the prospect of online dating.  “Well, if you don’t want to do online dating,” she said, “you’re not ready to date.”

That one made me visibly angry.  How would she know if I’m ready or not?  For the record, she was probably right.  But just because she was right doesn’t change the fact that telling me this was not helpful in the moment.

The worst thing anyone ever said to me was a few months after Shawn died.  I was in an online forum, talking about the pain, and another widow told me that it took years for her to feel even somewhat normal after the death of her husband.

“Years?!” I thought.  God, at that point, I couldn’t imagine surviving another day feeling the way I did.

You know what makes all of this worse?  I have said all of these things to other widows.  In fact, I met a widow the other day who had very recently lost her husband and I said to her, “oh, God, the entire first year was so terrible.”

I’m sure that really helped her outlook on the future.  Jesus.  I apologized a few minutes later and tried to walk it back.  But the damage was done.

My point is this – we all can’t be perfect.  We’re going to say the wrong things sometimes.  But sometimes we say the wrong things because we have no idea what else to say.  So, I thought I’d write about some of the things that people have said to me that were actually really wonderful.  There have been so many, so I’m just picking a few. 

Back in March, when I was hurting really badly, my friend Michelle texted me this:

Finding a way to hope and trust that there is more good stuff that you just can’t see YET is the challenge. I wish I could tell you how to do that but I don’t know. Faith and hope are tricky like that. And I totally get why they are hard to lean on right now. You can lean on us though. We are here. Always.

Michelle lost both of her parents years ago, so she is no stranger to grief.  Instead of telling me some platitude, she told me something that was real:  that I have supports.  That I have a community around me.  That there are people in this world who love me and are propping me up when I can’t stand.

Here’s another example.  Once, when I wasn’t sure how I was going to go on, I told my friend Kelly just that.  “I can’t do this,” I said.  In response, she started talking about all of the ways that I had survived in the past.  As part of this, she said to me:

I imagine Shawn looking into your eyes when you were birthing Tommy on your living room floor, saying, “Marjorie, you can do this.” He didn’t make that true, he reminded you of a truth that lives within you.

Kelly is a therapist, so she knows how to talk about grief.  Instead of telling me something I might not believe, she pointed out exactly how I had been strong in the past.  She reminded me that I had always had an inner strength, and even if I couldn’t see it, other people see it in me and have always seen it in me.

One other example is helpful, I think.  It was from one of the times when I was barely holding it together at work.  I looked exhausted, that I know, and I’d left work early the day before in tears. 

I walked into my office the next morning, and saw a post-it note stuck to my desktop.  It was from my friend Julie (I could tell from the handwriting, though it wasn’t signed) and it had one line on it:

You are loved.

Julie is a teacher, so she understands the power of simple gestures.  She didn’t say it would all be okay.  She didn’t tell me that things would get easier soon.  She didn’t try and heal me.  She just told me something that I needed to hear, that day and maybe every day.

What my friends did was to remind me of three things.  They reminded me that I am not alone and that I have people around me that will support me.  They reminded me that I am strong – not just for enduring what I’m enduring but also because it is a part of who I have always been.  And they reminded me that I have value.

We can’t be perfect.  We’ll all say the wrong thing sometime.  But more often than not, my friends have been able to say things that have helped me get to that next place:  the one where I feel supported, strong and loved.

10 Replies to “What (Not) to Say in Crisis”

  1. And we’re also ready to torch a ladder, write a harshly worded letter or put on our dancing pants to drag you out when need be. Love love love. Sometimes it’s a hug. Sometimes it’s plotting revenge.
    Sometimes it’s a faux fur.

    1. Amen! I’m so lucky lucky lucky for my tribe….the ones who will do anything for me. Faux fur!

  2. First, I was just thinking a friend who is an army reservist who served in Iraq. I told him how I generally don’t thank people for their military service because I’m self-conscious about how superficial a gesture it seems, and consequently how doing so might be perceived. He said, yes, it’s superficial, but he still likes it when people thank him. Good to know, perhaps.
    Second, hopefully this in itself is not inappropriate, but: when my mom was dying, a relative emailed me and my brother conveying an account of alcoholism and spousal abuse. Not the most uplifting topic, and I considered writing, I have absolutely no idea why you would send such a depressing and inappropriate email at such a time. Fortunately, I simply sent a (very) brief reply thanking her for keeping us in her thoughts, and I am literally laughing as I write this about how some people, like her, can be so utterly, totally clueless.

    1. Yes, I think people just have NO IDEA what to say. I mean, I’ve been through two major losses in my life and I STILL have a hard time sometime. I think that saying something – anything – is usually preferable to saying nothing. But wow, it’s tough!

  3. “It’s ok. Be sad. That’s normal. For what you both have lost.
    And then be happy that you had him for as long as you did. Be happy you have two wonderful little boys who will always be with you as reminder of your beautiful times.”
    These are the messages that one of my friend send it to me on 1st Death Anniversary of my husband.

    1. Beautiful. And so sweet that your friend sent a message.

  4. Marjorie, I came across this article recently and thought it might be a good fit for this post about what not to say in a crisis. It really makes a lot of sense.

    https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-xpm-2013-apr-07-la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407-story.html

    1. Oh, yes, I love this article! A great one for those who don’t know what to do/say for a grieving person.

  5. I don’t know. I think it’s ok to tell someone that the first year was hard. I remember my friend telling me she wished someone would have told her how hard it would be during the first year after her daughter was born. Since it was hard. That way when you experience the hardship yourself, you say, oh yeah, it’s hard. I guess that’s how it is in the first year. But Sheryl Sandberg also had a point. She said that what was helpful to her is to hear, “but it does get better.” Which is true. It does. It’s just not necessarily linear. So, i think it’s good to share that.

    Don’t be surprised if the pain is more excruciating in the third month than in the first 2. Anyway, that has been my experience. I believe that this is because some of the numbness I didn’t even realize I had was wearing off. And as that numbness passed, the pain was incredible. And the fogginess, that took a long time to dissipate and it’s not over yet. All of that was protective and as it wore away, I had sharper awareness of my loss. It was painful and exhausting. Every grief journey is different but it’s important to share that it is hard and likely will be for a while. For myself, it has been very comforting to hear from others that they are still suffering. It’s oddly reassuring.

    1. You know, that’s a good point. Maybe it’s about holding hope with the reality. It will be really hard AND it will get easier overall.

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