How to Speak to Someone About an Unspeakable Loss

By Linda Carroll on Thursday September 1st, 2016

Five Ways to Help When You Feel There is Nothing You Can Do

It’s not about saying the right things. It’s about doing the right things. ~ Unknown

Years ago, my family and I moved to a bucolic little town in New Zealand, where we were immediately swept up into a group of ex-pats and locals. We felt deeply connected to this community by the time I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy in the local hospital.

When our son was three months old, a doctor heard a heart murmur. Twenty-four hours later, he died.

In the days and weeks that followed, I wandered in my own fog of grief as I went about the necessary tasks of ordinary life: shopping for food, taking our other kids to school, doing the usual mounds of laundry.

Meanwhile, my new friends kept their distance. I saw them take great care to avoid me: to cross the street, switch supermarket aisles, literally do an about-face when they saw me coming.

Invitations stopped coming. The phone went silent. My grief was marked by a deeper isolation than I’d ever known.

When our son was three months old, a doctor heard a heart murmur. When our son was three months old, a doctor heard a heart murmur.

Later, many of these people apologized. They told me they were terribly sad and distressed about what had happened, but hadn’t known what to say. My loss was so enormous that words seemed inadequate, even pitiful.

They said nothing, out of fear that they would say the wrong thing.

This sort of experience repeats itself in many different forms: a friend gets dumped by the love of her life, a colleague is given notice at a job he’s held for two decades, or a loved one receives the dreaded news that she has inoperable cancer.

What can you say?

While it’s not an easy question to answer, one thing is certain: It’s worse to say nothing than to say the wrong thing. Here are five ways to respond helpfully to people who have suffered an enormous loss.

It’s worse to say nothing than to say the wrong thing.It’s worse to say nothing than to say the wrong thing.

1. Manage your own feelings first.

When we learn that disaster has befallen a loved one, we initially feel shock. Our heart rate increases, our thoughts either speed up or slow down, and we may experience nausea or dizziness.

The anxiety we feel is real and personal. Our instinct, though, is to ignore it, find ways to numb it or minimize it. That’s a mistake.

If we address our own anxiety first, we’ll be in a much stronger position to respond well to the person most directly affected. Do the things you know how to do to manage stress. A walk in the woods, some meditation or yoga, or talking to a trusted friend can help.

Make sure your own body and emotions are regulated before you turn to the person in grief.

2. Now focus on the other person.

Remember that the isolation they feel is almost as painful as the shock and the sadness of the loss itself. If you avoid them because you don’t know what to say, this avoidance serves only your needs.

Our friends and other loved ones need our comfort, support, and involvement during times of sorrow.

Although there isn’t a right thing to say, there are some things to never say. They include the current favorite, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “I know just how you feel.” How do you know there’s a reason, and what difference would it make to a grieving person, anyway? And you don’t know how they feel—only they do.

Our friends and other loved ones need our comfort, support, and involvement during times of sorrow.Our loved ones need our comfort, support, and involvement during times of sorrow.

3. Admit that you don’t know what to say.

That’s a good start. Try something simple that breaks the ice and starts a conversation, or at least sends a message to the other person that they’re not alone.

“I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I wish I could say the perfect thing, but I know there’s nothing to fix it. I just wanted you to know I care and am here with you.”

4. Listen.

If the person is willing to talk, listen. It’s the single most vital thing you can do.

Listen to their story without interrupting. Don’t turn the conversation back to you with statements like, “I know what you’re going through—my dog died last year.”

Don’t tell them what they will, or should, feel. Simply acknowledge their pain and listen to what it’s like for them.

We all have different styles of managing shock and distress. Some people are angry, while others seem numb. Still others turn to gallows humor. Your job is not to correct them but to give them space to be the way they need to be.

Simply acknowledge their pain and listen to what it’s like for them.Simply acknowledge their pain and listen to what it’s like for them.

5. Rather than saying, ”Let me know if I can do anything,” offer to do something practical and specific.

Taking on an ordinary task is often most helpful. Offer to shop for groceries, run errands, drive the kids somewhere, or to cook a meal or two. Ask if you can call tomorrow, or if they want to be left alone for a few days.

When Survey Monkey’s CEO Dave Goldberg died suddenly, his wife, Sheryl Sandberg, wrote the following:

When I am asked, “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, “My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am?” When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.

Taking on an ordinary task is often most helpful.Taking on an ordinary task is often most helpful.

Today, as I recall the loss of my own infant son, I think about the one person who did truly comfort me. She arrived at my house with a bottle of fine brandy and said, “This is everyone’s worst nightmare. I am so, so sorry this has happened.”

Then we sat on the lawn and she poured me a drink as she listened to every horrible detail.

As I look back now, I still feel how much her gesture helped me cope through those early days of pain. She didn’t try to fix me or try to make sense of what happened. She didn’t even try to comfort me. The comfort she gave came through her being in it with me.

You can’t fix what happened, but you can sit with someone, side by side, so they don’t feel quite so alone. That requires only intention, a willingness to feel awkward, and an open, listening heart. It’s the one gift that can make a difference.

Feature Image: Artist Unknown.

Read Next: What it Really Means to Hold Space for Someone.

This article was republished with permission from tinybuddha.com.

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57 Responses to How to Speak to Someone About an Unspeakable Loss

  1. Wien my great american love, aother man not even 30 years old, surfered and later died in horrific mc accident, my first thought was: how do I cope with this. There were so many practical things to start with, we had a shared bank account for future life and plans, a goal we determined had worked for. Christmas was close, we were to meet and have a Christmas holiday together, this added of course to the deep despair. Then practical facts, like class C insurance which with some aid was altered to an A class one, yet too late. He waited far too long in the waiting room somewhere, and the lesions, blessings and everything were as bad as they get.
    Mom, who despised my homosexuality was the first to offer me help, she came as soon she hard the news, and said, here is 60 000; think twice if you go, or stay. She told me I can’t hardly do anything about the situation, I have to just go on and accept. Fine. I decided not to go, which I am happy now many years later.
    My spouse to be was by and by stabilized, transported and came to more advanced care, which was too late, the brain damage, infections, cardiac arrests, broken body…he was put in artificial coma. Lying in USA, me in Europe, I was a nobody, and could not even discuss with his parents, only with his younger brother who really supported me best he could, having his own personal grief.
    Then there is practical situation, working, maintaining a home, bills running despite what.
    The most devastating was people ignoring me, no one knew how to deal with me, the always happy and smiling considerate guy was now always crying, unhappy, torn, agonized. My boss was a great support and some of my colleagues, they understood how hard it was, and supported me greatly.
    The hard part was to convince my -husband- to be’s parents that I am not gonna pay for lengthened life support, even if they wanted to, they did not have money to this at all. I worked three works and used every penny available to make my loves last time decent. Finally his 29 or 30 birthday, he was released from the earthly bonds, and I collapsed after almost two years pushing myself through this all.
    The year that followed does not exist, I have no whatsoever flashbacks to this year, it was all empty and dark, I was alone in a place I have never been, and do not want to return. I did not behave destructive in any means, I was determined to find a new life, a new focus, a new me. The hurt, it lingered there as long as the first phase of sorrow, two years. I worked, I ate, I slept, I did my training, I met friends, I participated, but I felt disconnected, I felt alone, and I felt homeless, landless, faceless, nameless…years passed and first after five years after the fact I was somewhat recovered, I started a therapy and recovered by and by. It was like to learn breathe anew, to learn to live again from scratch, coming out of ashes and many more metaphors.
    My eyes opened for people tackling through this same, and I volunteered helping parents who had lost their children in accidents, suicide and stuff. It helped me a lot, and instead of getting sad or tearing old wounds open, this helped me to heal. But that was me and my sorrow and my choices. It is highly individual occurrence, there is no sorrow alike the other, it is highly subjective experience, and multi factoria, depending on where you are in your life when all this comes over you.
    The ones asking how I was right now, there and then, are still friends. The ones who started with moralistic speeches of gods will and purpose are long gone. And there were the ones who actually shared the grief, like my granny, who cried with me, and talked softly to me, let me speak or remain silent. It had a great value.
    The grief is like an iceberg you try to melt down with silent sucks and tears, one need all the caring and loving help in this task.

  2. This year I have lost my husband, my mother in law, my best friend, an uncle I considered a father figure and my step mother. The grief has been overwhelming and I’m not sure how I’m still sane. Everyone has gone away and I have only my kids to talk to. They are going through their own grief. It’s very hard but I know that they are no longer in pain and that helps.

  3. Alana Shaheen, from her own experience, hosts Transformation Talks. This beautiful opening and gathering of many knowing the overwhelming experience with children, as you are sharing

  4. I was going to join the discussion but I feel my views about death and why might be too much for others to hear. My wife is terminally ill and, because she has become violent, I am no longer able to be in her presence. After 44 years together I am now on my own. It is like a death with no closure. I truly believe we live on after dying in the physical world. It is the start of the next great adventure. It is wonderful that people are talking about death. It is the last great taboo in society. One thing I will pass on that helped me, apart from some excellent counselling, is meditation. Many, if not all the answers we seek can be found within. Please give it a go. I wish you well.

    • Fraser Wilson, I want to say something, but I don’t know what. I can’t imagine the hell you must be going through.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Five months my 48 year old son died suddenly. One of my friends called as soon as she heard, asked if she could come over, & did. This was a huge help to me. One other friend came over immediately without calling to see what she could do. Of all my friends, these two were there when I needed them. Others, altho they sent cards, really never spoke to me about my son’s death. I know they probably didn’t know, or were afraid to say something, but they just don’t know how painful it is to have people ignore something that has changed your life forever. Please….say SOMETHING! Kind words count for so much.

  6. Just got through a tough year.
    13 months ago her son took his own life, she found him.
    The warning signs were all there yet we were all busy and hoped he would get through his depression brough on by a break-up.
    Numbness, anger and worst of all having to face people with ‘sad eyes’ and no words. It was like he pulled the pin from a gernade, handed it to her with the room full of family and left. She puts on a brave face and copes one day at a time. All the special days she once looked forward to are now painfull, his birthday, family dinners and Christmas. Her shattered heart makes the best of Christmas only for his younger brothers.
    Brian Sky you don’t know how it feels when the happiest day of your life, the birthday of your first born son becomes your saddest. She worked 18 years without missing a day or being late so he had everything he needed, not wanted.
    I have stood by her side while a mother lives every mother’s worst nightmare.
    Brian Sky you don’t know how it feels.

  7. I feel really relieved to have read this article, and honoured to have read about these two women’s experiences. I also feel determined to look after myself well, on December 25. An unspeakable and unwritable event occurred in my life, before I could speak. So it is a very apt article, and one that resonates deeply with me, and I’m sure with millions of people around the world.

  8. I know in my heart people don’t mean to be mean or say things that are hurtful. All of us would be better off just saying “I don’t know what to say,” or “there are no words.” I only went off once on a friend who said she was hopeful for the day I would by myself again. I told her , abbreviated version, that person died with my husband, but I was working on figuring who I am now. I really miss my life.

  9. I disagree that it is better to say the wrong thing than to say nothing. When I was 24, my beautiful, loving, awesome mom died. She was 50. Some people said some pretty “wrong” things back then and I still remember them now 28 years later. It did teach me to be more thoughtful about what I say to people who are grieving and mostly I don’t say anything I just give them a hug. So now that friends and family around my age (53) are starting to lose their parents will still say “wrong” things to me like “now I know how you felt back then”. Uh hmm…..let’s see, your mom got to meet your husband, be at your wedding, meet her grandkids, help you through all those milestones. I got none of that. I didn’t get to see my mom enjoy any of her grandkids because she died 3 months before her first grandbaby (my nephew) was born. I have NEVER said the words “I know how you feel” to anyone about anything let alone about their grief over the loss of a loved one.

    • Mytwocents, I’m so sorry for your loss at such a young age.
      I agree with you. Some things can be more harmful than saying nothing, but I hope articles like this enlighten people. No situations should ever be compared or equated. Each is unique.

  10. I went to see a friend after the loss of her child I listened etc she went on to tell me she was going to set up a charity I suggested putting her in touch with another friend who had also lost a child but through different circumstances and had also set up a charity. she asked for details of my other friends loss ( it was 17 prior and I didn’t know her then ) she asked how she copes I said she just gets on with it a day at a time and shrugged my shoulders. A few days later she posted on her new charities page about our conversation although she didn’t name me she took what I said and twisted it after 600 plus comments slamming me I removed myself from the group.i even ended up moving my kids school in the end. Absolutely horrendous.i have even hidden round corners from her it really stopped me from helping others for fear of repocussion

  11. Brian Sky this is not about knowitall you. Go away and don’t add uneededapin by kicking someone who is grieving a devastating loss. Try to grow a heart. You’re a monster.

  12. Terrible article. I stopped at dont say everything happens for a reason. It in fact does. We all go thru hardship. Two choices get bitter or get better. Theres a big difference between sympathy (negative) and empathy (positive). The avove mentioned comment is empathetic excuse me but if i say i know how you feel, i do. Speak for yourself poster. Limited, incorrect articles on coscious sites really urk me. If your not 100 dont put up the info. Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one. Seek truth only or be ensalved to the merrygoround of nonsense

      • I do believe MS McLean that you have your own way to deal with pain and suffering. Brian Sky does not once try to “manipulate people to” believe that he is Buddah or Ghandi, God himself or “The Enlightened One”. It is a personal discomfort or fear that you have with Brian!” He, as you are, simply is enlighted with his own truth. You are angry for some reason, finding it necessary to call him names and degrade him. Helping someone is not about being the “one and only” best helper. It is about showing compassion and love to the suffering one, whom is trying to overcome pain and hurt and the fear of being Isolated. You are trying to bring all the readers down to your level of insecurity. Brian is sharing his truth for the good of the listener, to help them grow and conquer their pain, however, what purpose could you possibly have for trying to shut him out and cut him down, other than trying to fullfill a need you have for being Superior. Which ironically is what you are accusing him of doing. Write from your heart not your ego, please.

        • I apologise to Brian and to you Beverley for getting you up on your high horse and compounding the situation. Also to anyone who is grieving who was disturbed in any way by the discussion. This was about comforting you.

    • Mr Sky, it sounds as though you have some solid experience of spiritual/emotional balance. But you should consider that if you wish to offer to others the benefit of your experience, you would assist more people if you learned how to build intellectual and emotional bridges to your audience. This will make your readers more likely to want to hear what you have to say.

      • Beautifully and succinctly put! Thank you! Very often what may be a good message may get lost in translation because of inappropriate timing,poor and ineffective delivery.

  13. on august first, i lost my hiking partner of eight years. he chose that day, his 54th birthday, to climb mount nittany and blow his head off.
    his son called me at 10:30 that morning, and told me what had happened.
    i understood the reasoning. he didn’t suffer with depression. he had no illness or financial issues. his motives involved a fear of aging, numerology, and various conspiracy theories that ruled his life.
    i understand, but i won’t ever accept. and the grief will never leave. i have to learn to live around it.
    no. we had no romantic ties. but he and i knew, cherished and accepted each other, despite our 180 degree differences. so now i walk around this hole.
    i may end up taking a third job to fill the hours i always spent hiking. or i may end up leaving this beautiful area. no one can say anything to make it right. but people have said things to make it worse.

    • Hello, Anne. Such a dreadful loss. I ache for you. Try not to make any major decisions during the first year. Losing a friend to suicide is disorienting. I have experienced it. That was over 40 years ago and I still think of my friend but with less grief. Time, for me doesn’t remove grief but it does soften it. Love & gentle thoughts.

      • thank you.
        i did climb up there and burned some sage. and i found some extra work at least until winter. then i’ll look for something else.
        one of the most disturbing things i’ve found is how so many people want to claim a part in this. one woman claims she found his body. wrong. the police found the body. another claims she was his girlfriend. wrong. he had at least three women he slept with regularly (not me!). someone else claimed he jogged regularly. wrong. he thought running was stupid. part of me just wants to tell everyone to shut up. i do try to ignore this stuff, but people go out of their way to tell me about it.

  14. I lost my father and best friend the last day of April, then lost my SECOND niece only 4 months later. Both nieces were sudden. My Dad battled pancreatic cancer for two and a half years. It was the worst time of my life. These happened in June, 2005 and then again in 2014! I still am ignored and have no one to talk to other than my sister who lost both of her daughters. It will be 2 years on the 12th of this month.t What do I do? I drive 80 miles each way to see my sister every other week and my husband tells me I’m too sensitive and crying is only for weak people. I need some guidance/advice. I’m literally dying inside with absolutely no one to talk to about how I feel

    • Hi Katie
      I lost 4 people including my mother last year. Luckily I have good friends I can talk to. I feel for you and your husbands reaction is very hard. There are psychological stages that everybody must go though to in order to process grief and come out the other side see http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ I don’t know who you can reach out to to help you go through these stages The Samaritans, a Counsellor or just a new group of friends. I hope you find some support and don’t have to drive 160 miles to be listened to.

      • Aryhian, what a devastating loss. I’m glad you have support and admire that you reached out to help others who are also grieving. Hugs.

    • How awful for you. A grief group could help. Maybe a talk with a Hospice worker. It sounds like your husband doesn’t know how to comfort you so he is trying to make you stop grieving. Just my take on it. I could be completely wrong. Facebook has a site called Grief Speaks Out where people are encouraged to share whatever feelings they have and others are asked to respect their feeling and not try to fix. I found it comforting. I hope you might too.

    • I am so sorry you have had so much sorrow. I am also sorry no one is there to hold you. May peace fill your soul. you are never alone. Be well!

    • Katie, you have experienced more loss and grief than most people do in a lifetime. And “out of order” losses, especially, are unfathomable. I can’t begin to imagine…
      I’m sure you have helped your sister immeasurably; I only hope that you have found the support you need.

      I realize this was posted a year ago. I had to comment. My heart is with you and your sister. ?

  15. I lost my husband 2 months ago. One of my best friends and a devout catholic said to me over and over again: God doesn´t make mistakes, God doesn´t make mistakes. It was SO hurtful, it made me feel much worst. I know it´s not easy finding the right things to say and she probably didn´t mean to make me feel bad, but she did. Her words keep coming back to me.

    • First I am so sorry for the loss of your husband..It does come down to people thinking they are saying a good thing. When my son passed I heard things like “he is in a better place” you need to learn to move on etc. It drove me nuts. When we suffer such a great loss, I think part of us is angry and finds an outlet for it. I never felt angry but it was easy to get upset with such statements..I think I was just angry with death. When people have never lost a husband or a child, honestly they have no idea what it feels like and feel the need to say something. By bringing God into it they may believe they are offering the best support. I wish you much love during your grief journey. Remember to reach out when the support (phone calls and visits) stops. It will help so much in your healing.

        • Doesn’t help. Makes it worse. If your kid was on drugs would you buy them dope? Why is this so hard and confusing? Madness..

          • She is responsible for her thoughts as well as her pain. As are you. As am I. There is no debate on the truth of the matter. The respnses did not deepen her pain. In fact it was her narrow perspective, and uncontrolled ungaurded thoughts. Now multiply this small examoke of two very confused people interacting with one another and just because they fail to THINK end up causing and adding to what is already a painful experience times that by the mahority of humanity and you will never have to whonder why when something is negative in our colture, society, nation, world, ourselves or our relationships and interactions with others. If given the choice you would seek pleasure and avoid pain. This is the guiding force behind all behind all human choices. The problem then lies in ignorance and the lack of drive to critically think, which is the highest valued thinking. Dont you value yourself and others? I recommend critical thinking on each and every subject. Youll be amazed at what you learn when you use your brain. As alwayd i will always help a soul seeking to evolve and even speak to those who do not seek to evolve, you deserve the right to choose and to know there is greater things within you and all the answers you seek than you could ever imagine. Choose wisely.

          • Really touched a nerve on this one didn’t we? Go ahead and reply to yourself when no one’s asking you to one more time, why don’t you?

    • Thats what brings you pain. Avoidance of exapnded awareness. If you dont like that comment “God doesnt make mistakes” which is true btw except there is no old man in the sky but thats a topic for another time then you musy be asking for someone to what? Cry with you? You’re already in pain thats not enougj? Now you want to bring others down to your level so thatyou can what? Feel better? Doesnt make so much sense when one actually THINKS about it. Now your thoughts create your reality. There is no debate. Why would there be any other solutio than the solution? The comment didnt make you feel bad. You already felt bad, irregardless of any comment. You simply took your pain and prohected it on an innocent being that in fact was giving you sound information wbile trying to protect their emotional well being, as we all deserve and are capable of being constantly emotionally healthy. And you are saying that is wrong? I beleive you are confused. Correct me if im confused but i never speak on such things without THINKING so Im virtually never wrong. Why don’t you think also? If I can do it so can you. There is a reason for evrrything. And there is one truth to each fact. Seek that truth. Not my truth. Not your truth. The truth. And settle for nothing less. Otherwise you are doomed to live a life of confusion, and from what i read pain. Do i experience loss pain or hard times? Sure. Is it painful? Sure. Do i quickly recover? Mkstly. “You dont drown by falling in water. You only drown if you stay there.” Of course each is entitles to their own experience but without the logic and knowledge coupled with your emotion there is but only one possible outcome. And personally, I wasbt born to feel negative. Were you? Take responsibility for your life and your thoughts and ditch the misery loves company lifesttle unless you like to suffer? Humans are such a trip. As you experience and play with these ideas you will grow and become stronger amd better with and at it. I am always willing and available to help in any way a can a soul that is seeking to evolve. Feel free to lmk. All the best. Love & Light

    • Irene, I’m so sorry for your loss. If people say things you don’t want to hear it is probably out of feelings of their own inadequecy. Who dares to speak for God? Your own beliefs are what’s real for you and what another says doesn’t matter. They are expressing what they believe, what gets them through the night. That’s all and please try to ignore Brian Sky. He’s heartless. I hope you are surrounded by loving people who will just be there with you through this. When my brothers died I got great comfort from a site called Grief Speaks Out. They would not allow a troll like Brian Sky to comment and add to your pain. I wish you love & comfort.

      • Well said Lyla!
        I came across a good meme the other day that said “grief is love with nowhere to go” and I thought how apt. If you can find a way to channel that love then it does help!
        Wishing you love and light!

    • I’m sorry you had to endure someone minimizing your suffering, whether they meant to or not.Thats a lonely place to be, in my experience. Seek someone out that you know can allow your authentic feelings. I have been seeing a grief therapist through a Hospice organization. It’s free and it has helped imensly.

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