What do you Say To Family and Friends When Someone Dies?

May 14 th

It’s not about what to say – it’s about how to be. How to Hold Space.

When comforting someone who is bereaved and suffering great loss from the death of a loved one we mostly don’t know what to say or do. Our culture and society hasn’t equipped us to be around the bereaved. So It’s often profoundly discomforting and almost terrifying to be around sadness and despair. Sometimes we just want to find something, anything to say and then bolt for the door as soon as possible.

I was the same way until it happened to me and I was the one sitting in the chair of the bereaved. As I sat, I watched the merry-go-round of visitors coming to pay their respects and leaving as soon as possible. I didn’t blame them, I was a wreak and couldn’t stop being a wreak. I couldn’t find “a stiff upper lip”. I couldn’t bury my emotions and put on “a good face” to make others comfortable. As I sat with my grief I began to observe. Mostly, it seemed to me that in searching for something, anything to say most people simply unpacked a platitude they heard being said in the past like: “S/he’s in a better place now” or “Everything’s going to be OK” or “Time will heal.”

Because it’s just the way my mind works, I began to wonder which one each person would pick. I can tell you, “S/he’s in a better place now” was the winner followed in order by “Everything’s going to be OK” and “Time will Heal.” Then, upon exiting, a final platitude, “Let me know if you need anything.” Sometimes sincere, sometimes not, but clearly the expected thing to say going out the door. Then a few month later the favorites became “you have to accept it”, “it’s time to move on” and “get over it.”

The truth is that these all are clichés foisted on the grieving to make those around us feel comfortable. The truth is that clichés began to make me furious. I wanted to get a bull horn and scream – “he might be in a better place, but what about me? I’m NOT in a better place.” And “nothing is OK and I will never be OK with my son’s death. And “how do you know that time will heal?” But of course, I didn’t scream because that would really make people uncomfortable, and they didn’t deserve that. They simply didn’t know what to say or how to be around me.

As you know by now, I didn’t “accept it” “move on” or “get over it.” Instead I retired, sold my house and all my possessions and went on a two and a half year world journey to find a way through grief and despair.

What I found out along the way is that finding something to say to the bereaved is not nearly as important as finding out how to Be. Being is the art of Holding Space for someone. Holding Space means sitting with the bereaved in their grieving journey without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. We become a sacred witness to their grief.

When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control. We simply sit, even when sitting silently is uncomfortable, we sit. We hug, hold hands, bring endless cups of tea and tissues and mystery casseroles. We serve, we let them simply Be.

Holding Space is difficult if we are uncomfortable with silence. Instead of resorting to filling silence with words and grasping desperately onto platitudes, be silent, be a sacred witness and simply Hold Space.