Condolences can be extremely awkward. The inclination is to share your grief with another who is grieving even more, but that doesn’t feel quite right, does it?
Even in the moment, you feel it: a cringing brittleness rather than the embrace of solace. You don’t want to add to their pain, whether it be at the actual funeral or even by the time the bereaved have returned to the general flow of society.
So we generally say “Sorry for your loss,” yet are there any four words that drill inward deeper and heavier than those four by-the-numbers indicators of discomfort? The phrase has become so overused there’s no way for it to be heard as anything other than obligatory – a token gesture – and even though it means well, every word is a barb.
“Sorry” sets the bereaved in a guilty space. Even when we’re in the throes of grief, we don’t want others suffering on our behalf. “Sorry” is the word we hear from someone who’s wronged us, but in the context of grief, it becomes we’ve wronged you with an emotional burden that you’re politely trying to deflect.
“For” becomes the direct line connecting the bereaved’s dead to your discomfort.
“Your” isolates the bereaved, effectively saying that even though you may feel compassion for them, the true loss is theirs to deal with, not yours.
“Loss.” As if the bereaved could have held on. As if they weren’t able to maintain life for their loved one. Loss. Someone is gone, and the bereaved cannot get them back. No matter where they look they will not find them. Everything that person was is no more. All connective threads to them? Severed. The bereaved, as the survivor, is alone.
A universe of hurt in the span of one breath. “Sorry for your loss.”
But in your offer of comfort, you don’t know this because the bereaved person musters a wan smile, a quick embrace, and – probably for one of multiple times before yours – successfully fights back tears in order to say, “Thank you.”
Can we do better? I think we can. We have it in us to be gentler with our compassion, be genuine with our aid, and be truly unafraid to be there for someone.
What to say in situations where words are simply not enough?
I’m Here For You
This can be one of the most powerful things to say to someone who’s grieving. “I’m here for you.” It doesn’t have to be a grand outpouring of emotion; compassion isn’t like a carnival game of reaching a certain level to ring a bell. It should project the awareness that you’ll hold space for another, however they need it and on their time, allowing the bereaved to pour themselves into you in order to rest, recuperate, and reclaim a sense of connection after the trauma of a final goodbye.
Accompanied with a touch – perhaps a hug, perhaps the gentle taking of a hand, the moment will tell – this phrase tells the bereaved they are not alone: not alone in grief, not in their sense of solitude, not in having to shoulder sudden and massive amounts of uncertainty.
When we go through trials, even (or especially) the most common, most inescapable of trials, one that visits the world innumerable times a day, death, the most beautiful things we receive are the reassurances that we are not alone.
Peace And Be Well
Death rides hard and fast when it brings its news of mortality, leaving us confused and unsure of our bearings as we flail inside the dust of its passing. Everything familiar becomes illusory and monstrous. Wishing someone “Peace and be well” in whatever variation of that phrase that feels comfortable to the tongue, is a powerful, stabilizing force.
It lets the bereaved know that peace is, indeed, possible, and the amount of strength in that reassurance can be a godsend to someone grasping for balance. “Be well” acknowledges the twisting illness they might feel. Together, peace and wellness form a wish from one in a vantage of strength to one in present need of hope, providing a sense of clarity to come. Even when we don’t feel as if peace is anywhere nearby, we want to know that it can be.
You Have My Heart And Support
As with “I’m here for you,” “You have my heart and support” bridges the sudden gulf from community to isolation a death can create in the mind of someone dealing with such a loss. “My heart” tempers the hard edge of shared grief in a way that “sorry,” “sorrow,” or any variation of that grey, mournful word all fall short of achieving. “You have my heart and support” isn’t a reminder of loss in the way “Sorry for your loss” is, but a promise of solidarity no matter how grief tries to tear one’s sense of normalcy down. This is hugely important in grounding a person during a time of personal upheaval.
Sometimes if you have to say something, say it with ellipses. Nobody hearing “I know it’s hard…” needs you to finish that sentence. Pretending to be strong is the first hurdle of the bereaved. Merely letting them know that you know the valleys, hills, and struggles they are about to endure – and will endure – releases them from the strain of that pretense. In a way, it pre-congratulates them for reaching the end of the journey intact, strengthened, and prepared for the next inescapable trial.
Let Me Help
Perhaps this one doesn’t need to be said. Despite all we do, consoling words will always feel like seeds on concrete under a roiling, grey sky. We want to merge our hearts and minds with another’s to alleviate their pain, but words in the moment, not even those of poets, never quite feel adequate to the task. When the bereaved have had time for reflection, maybe poets will do. Poetry can speak in ways the soul understands even when the mind doesn’t.
But there are times when the moment calls for the pure and simple silence of the unspoken entreaty: let me help; allow me to grieve with you; sit down, rest, be. This can be communicated by a tight hug; by offering a box of tissues when needed without being asked; by helping the bereaved out of their seat or even literally offering your shoulder for their head to lay; there are a million ways to show you are there for someone. Words bridge a gap. “Deepest condolences on your loss,” “sympathy for your loss,” “sorry for your loss” are mere shadows of what’s in your heart.
No matter what you decide to say to someone, make sure that it is helpful. Uplift them, be with them, let them know that you are not just another specter in a pageant of pain, one that begins to disappear to them even before all the funereal social obligations have been fulfilled. The bereaved will have enough ghosts to contend with; compassion must lead you to be substantial.
It’s never easy finding the “right” words. If it were easy, it’d be meaningless. It’s said we’re at our most human when we’re sorrowful or joyful; everything in between gets muddled. Words of compassion should express our humanity. These suggestions may help or may not. They’re not meant to become new rubber stamps in lieu of the ragged, cracked one many of us use now, they’re solely guides.
Life is best when we let humanity, empathy, and a willingness to lift the pains of others from their shoulders guide us, even when only for a moment. A lot can be done and said in the span of a breath.