How to Talk about Death with the Grieving

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A couple weeks ago, my uncle died. I grew up near him and my aunt and their kids—we spent time together like siblings.

I had experienced loss before. About five years ago, my dad died. Because of this, and because I was close to my cousins, I thought finding the right things to say to them at their father’s funeral would be something I could handle. I had been on the receiving end of so many condolences not long before. But when the time came, I struggled. I felt unsure. I couldn’t help but feel like I could have done better.

Unlike almost everything else that we eventually come to know and understand, we don’t know death by living it. We get to know it obliquely—through the emotional consequences of losing people we love. it is a burden of being alive, and everyone must manage it. Mathematically speaking, death is exactly as common as life. Yet to speak about death with people who grieve still feels unmanageably difficult.

When my dad died, so many people told me things that felt good and made a difference. Not all of the time, but definitely sometimes. At the time I thought, while this sucks immensely, the process has given me a little silver lining: I’ll know all the right, comforting things to say to people who experience loss for the rest of my life.

But I’m a person so that is not what happened. All of the effective things I took note of had gotten stuck in a dark corner of my brain and, come time of my uncle’s funeral, were very hard to access. Yet I knew it was worth trying, because I’ll have to do this again, many, many times, and so will everyone else.

When someone close to you dies, a hole is left in your life that no one else will fill. I was very close to my dad. After he died at 57 from a brain tumor, the gap that our relationship left made me feel a little alienated from everyone else. So what I wanted most was to feel closer to people, less alone and more understood. I didn’t want—maybe unreasonably so—people to talk about boilerplate loss, i.e., “I’m sorry for your loss.” Loss, as a concept, is not devastating. I wanted people to tap into the specificity of my loss, that the thing that was missing was my dad. My smart, handsome, smirking, pretty hilarious, composed father, who was obsessed with the dumb Brewers and showed up at every mostly unwatchable athletic event I ever played, was gone. So something as simple as, “I’m so sorry you lost your father,”—a more pointed acknowledgment of our particular relationship—did wonders. When someone hit on what my specific deficit looked like, I felt a little more alive and connected to them. I didn’t as fully inhabit a black hole with no company.

Even if a person had never met my dad, they could say, “He must have been a great father. I’m so sorry he is gone,” and that effort would feel better than, “Sorry.” Because even if he’d not been that good of a dad or man, targeted, specific empathy is life-giving. It pulls your attention back to the land of the living. Furthermore, words of support and Facebook messages sent to me from people I didn’t know well at all were often most touching. It was like a broader message that the whole world generally got it. That people generally did understand and care about the fact that a person had lost her dad. Those out-of-the-blue condolences, strangely, have stuck with me more than most.

Which, actually, transitions well to this: If there is an option to say something or nothing, say something—anything. If everything else you read here turns to mush, remember just this. “Sorry” and nothing else is way better than silence. A person died; it was a real event, and the residual pain (grief) thrives for untold months and years inside the ones who have lost. Ignoring that which ails you, or having it ignored by others, does not make it go away. Quite the opposite. Calling out the pain, and only that, is the start to making it feel better.

And, note this: despite the fact that talking about one’s loss is helpful, those who grieve will probably not bring it up. I didn’t. I didn’t want people to think I was self-pitying. But I wanted to talk about my dad more than anything. So bring it up. If you offer, those who have lost will probably seize the opportunity. If not, at least you asked. But to me, not talking about my dad was the worst scenario of all. It was a kind of second death. I understood why people, even those close to me, were hesitant to bring it up. We have this fear that it will make people sadder, or nudge them back into sadness if they seem to have moved on. People would also tell me that, because they had no firsthand experience with the same kind of loss, they had nothing useful to say.

But on all of those points let me assure anyone who wonders: talking about death does not make it sadder or any worse; the sadness is already at its most extreme. And talking about the person is the only way that they can be brought back to life. What better outcome than that! I relish the chance to talk about my dad, especially now, almost six years after November 2010. The more time that passes since his death, the more important it is to keep him alive with conversation. If my friends wonder if they should bring it up, they should. I loved my dad! There is untold relief in keeping alive, through spoken words, the simple fact that he lived.

Which brings me to the last point, and this is not one that everybody can use. But if you can, it is the best possible approach: share your memories of the person who died. There is nothing better than hearing other people’s recollections of specific interactions they had with my dad, ones I had never heard before, and that usually came from another part of his life I was less familiar with. Even though he is no longer, those memories give me access to a part of him that was previously concealed, like a secret room I didn’t know existed. It is an unparalleled thrill to discover it.

My dad did a lot of things. He was a lawyer, made a documentary about his dad in World War II, wrote a book about that story, worked for an association advocating policy on Capitol Hill. But I think his stint as a high school history, economics, and debate teacher was the one he inhabited and loved best. Hearing stories from his students in and out of the classroom are my favorite. He was not easy on them, but I think that’s a big part of the reason they admired him. He talked to them like adults, tore apart bad papers with red ink, and wouldn’t let them enter a classroom if they were late (another shock! he was so easy on me!). But then he would also swear with them casually, and not feed them bullshit. He gave them the honest Scott, the high and the low, and they loved him most for that, for being real with them. These are all things I learned from his debate students, or those who hung out in his office after class, because Mr. Rinn was funny, and respected them. Hearing these memories have made his life bigger to me, even posthumously.

It is easy to feel like our words have little impact on people. When it comes to death, they can feel especially useless. But our toolkits are limited; we have to use what’s inside them. At their best, words can be a very powerful ally. And sometimes, they can perform an act of magic. They can conjure life.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this Natalie. I recently lost my mom and I still appreciate when someone straight up says “this fucking sucks” to me, because it does and it will feel that way forever. And I always will want her stories. Even the one’s I was never meant to hear from my mom’s wilder days, which instead of embarrassing me, have created a whole new appreciation for her zest for life. The more she’s spoken of, the more I can keep her close to me. And that’s all I really want.

  2. A period of mourning, talking, listening and crying – it all helps to purge the gnawing hurt of grief and loss. But please don’t remain in that place – don’t immerse yourself in grief, don’t don’t dwell on things that can’t be changed. Ask yourself- is this about the departed – or is it about me? If you’re not strong, if you don’t fight, if you don’t try to move on, you risk being sucked down into a very real whirlpool of despair and self-pity – down and down and down- from which it is so hard to escape. You must move away from – you must reach out from – that hurt self and selfishness. Death is a part of life. Period. Sure, in the months and years to come there wll be many times when something makes you flash back to despair (i.e. places or holidays that remind you of your loved one, or even something like a child’s doll – whose voicebox mechanically repeats the words ma ma, ma ma, ma ma). But all wounds heal in time, and allow you to live again – if you don’t self destructively tear off the scabs. To defeat death and dying you must embrace your life even more fully.

  3. Nathalie, thank you for sharing this. I’ve never lost anyone close to me but my boyfriend’s father passed away recently. My heart breaks for him so much and while I can’t relate to his grief, it’s painful to feel useless, like I don’t have the right words or the perfect solution. It’s nice to have some guidance when you don’t know where to begin.

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