If you’re not a fellow griefling (yes, we have a cute name for ourselves – don’t @ me) you may be surprised to hear that you can feel very judged in grief. I learned this over the past year from my experience as well as talking to other grievers. I found when I most needed support I was on the receiving end of comments that seem like they should be comforting, but instead I felt judged. It took me a lot of thinking, reading, and processing to understand why everyone was trying to comfort me and theoretically saying nice things and yet I often felt worse.
The first thing I want to say is that your words will likely never provide comfort in the way you wish they could. I hope this liberates you rather than brings you down. It’s not because you’re inadequate, it’s because perhaps the only thing that would bring them true comfort is for their person to still be alive. You can’t take their pain away. All you can do is acknowledge it and perhaps ease their suffering if you can (more on that another day).
Also, I’ve most likely said versions of all of the below in the past, and despite my experience I often have to check my urges to say them now, so I’m not some perfect example. I just know more now and want to share that knowledge in the hope it helps bridge the gap in a society that doesn’t understand grief. I also know that if you’re reading this you want that too and I thank you for that.
Here are a couple of things people (muggles – yes you get a cute name too) commonly say to grieflings and why they feel like judgements.
any sentence that begins “at least…”
At least you had the time you did. At least you had this great love, some people go their whole lives without experiencing the love you had. At least their suffering is over. At least you have happy memories to look back on.
The reason comments like this are so hurtful is because they feel like judgement. They feel like judgement because there is an invisible second part of the sentence, for example “so stop feeling so bad”.
At least you had the time together that you did (so stop feeling so bad).
If your comforting sentence starts with “at least” imagine the invisible second part of the sentence and consider if that’s the feeling you want to convey.
I have understood this idea of the invisible second half of the sentence from Megan Devine’s book “It’s OK That You’re Not OK”. It’s a great resource. It’s one of the few things I actually recommend to fellow grievers or someone supporting them.
Before I lost my husband, I didn’t know this word ‘platitudes’, these cliché statements people often say when they don’t know what else to say. Things like:
- They’re in a better place
- Everything happens for a reason
- This too shall pass
- It could be worse
- Something about God’s will blah blah
See above as to why they feel like judgement.
I couldn’t do what you’re doing
I couldn’t go back to work; I couldn’t leave the house; I wouldn’t be able to get off the floor.
It took me a while to process why these comments that are seemingly “compliments” made me feel so bad. In theory they are saying a nice thing, that I’m doing a good job. It’s because they feel like a judgement in a couple of ways.
There is that follow-up half of the sentence that appears to say you are doing grief wrong.
“If it were me, I wouldn’t be able to get off the couch… (so you are doing it wrong)”
“I couldn’t do what you’re doing… (therefore you didn’t love him enough)”
“I couldn’t have gone back to work yet, I would still be on the floor… (if you really loved him, that’s where you’d still be)”.
There is also an implication that because the griever is functioning in whatever moment you’ve caught them, that they’re like that all the time. My friend, you are only seeing your grieving person in whatever state they’ve presented themselves at that moment. You’re seeing a fraction of their experience. It doesn’t mean that the moment they get off the phone/reach their car/crash through the front door that they don’t collapse in a heap. It also doesn’t mean they don’t have moments when they’re smiling, laughing and looking as though they’re “doing well” (whatever that means).
“I couldn’t do what you’re doing” also has another implication that bothers me. It implies the griever has a choice. This feels problematic because if there is an implication there is a choice to carry on, what is the alternative? They don’t have another option. Unless the alternative is taking their own life. Intended or not, it’s not a nice feeling.
you’re so strong
Saying “you’re so strong” isn’t inherently a bad or good thing. And often for me it depended on the context of the conversation and my relationship with whoever was saying it. But it often felt uncomfortable because like I noted above, you’re not seeing everything. You’re only seeing what they’ve allowed you to see. And again it feels like judgement on the way you’re grieving. It can feel like someone is saying “you seem fine, if it were me, I would be just in a heap… (therefore you didn’t love them enough).”
All of it comes back to this feeling of a judgement on how someone is grieving. And it always feels like “you’re doing grief wrong”.
Great, now I’m failing grief too.
“That’s not my intention!” I hear you cry.
Intentions don’t matter here.
I’m just trying to share why saying a certain thing could make your griefling feel terrible. The result is that no one gets what they want, the griever feels worse and the support person hasn’t felt good about their attempt at providing support.
So what to say? Show up, witness, listen, allow your person to be sad/angry/feel guilty (yes even guilt). If words can’t comfort, this is all we can do. I like this animation – again from Megan Devine’s website Refuge in Grief (I guess I am a fangirl).
I plan to share a follow up post about more helpful ways to communicate with grieving people. But felt this idea deserved its own post as I think it is important to understand why there is such a disconnect. Also, I tried to put it in one post and it was way too long and I know you have many tiktoks to catch up on. Go forth and scroll!