Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Stupid Things Caring People Say About Grief

I’m a writer who lost a spouse. I’m not a therapist or a counselor, but I paid attention to my grief. I’ve also listened to a lot of people talk about losing a husband, wife, parent, sibling, child, or a stillborn baby, and there are many commonalities to grief when death rips your life apart. For simplicity sake in this post, I’m going to use the example of losing a wife, but adapt what I say to your own situation.

This is for MK who asked.

Many people have not lost someone close. They want to help and take the pain away, but they haven’t experienced grief and often say what makes those who are grieving feel worse.

These are some of the phrases I heard after my wife died. If you’re inclined to say them to someone who is grieving, do this instead — ask how the person is doing, and listen.

You will be okay. It’s better this way.
Really? My wife is gone forever, and that will never be okay with me.

Time heals all wounds.
Grief is not a wound that will heal. You can’t kiss this boo-boo away. Grief is also not an illness like the flu that will go away on its own. Grief will hang around until we deal with it.

It’s time that you got over this.
We do not get over grief. Grief will always be with us because we will always love the person who died. But we will learn to live with it. Grief will become one part of our life instead of being every single moment of every single day.

It’s been a month. Maybe you’re not grieving right.
People think a month is the time it takes to recover from grief. I thought so, too, before Evelyn died. Maybe that’s because a week feels too short, and a month is a nice chunk of time. Grief will last longer than that.

Grief must be teaching you something you needed to learn.
If I needed to learn it, then so do you. Get in here with me.

I know what you’re feeling. I understand what you’re going through.
No, you don’t, not even if you also lost a wife. You don’t know where I am in grief until you sit down and listen.

It’s part of God’s plan. She’s in a better place. She’s out of pain.
I like what C.S. Lewis said when people told him he should be happy because his wife was now in God’s hands. Lewis said he thought she was in God’s hands when she was alive, and look at how she suffered with a horrible disease. Some people say that suffering is part of God’s agenda, but helping someone who is grieving is a matter of compassion, not theology.

You have to move on.
Why? Why do I have to move on? What you’re saying is that you’re tired of hearing about death and grief.

Here are a few basic understandings I’ve learned.

When a spouse dies, we lose someone we expected to spend the rest of our life with. We’ve set up a home with that person as an integral part. It takes time to dismantle this life and start a new one.

If we lost a child, we also lose our dreams for him or her, our expectations of being a parent and watching our child grow up into a freestanding adult.

If we lost a parent when we were young, we missed her or his love and guidance at a time when we needed it most, as well as every day since. We missed getting to know our parent as an adult.

To know how grievers are doing, use these ballpark figures as a rough guideline. They are based on my experiences and the experiences of two-dozen friends. Some people will move though grief faster, some slower, especially if an act of violence was involved.

The first six months of grief will be marked by shock, disbelief, anger, despair and acceptance. “The stages.” Not everyone will go through each stage, or in the same order, or even in the first months. There are also additional stages, but you get idea. Everyone’s grief is different.

The second six months will have some of the previous, but also a great deal of numbness and uncaring about anything and anyone, including ourselves. Our physical senses will return and we’ll be able to taste food again.

During the first year, we have to endure all the anniversaries, birthdays and holidays for the first time without our spouse, and without the person we would most want to celebrate them with.

In the second year, we wish we could get on with life, but we may not have any idea what we want to do, or have any energy to do it. Moments of joy will return and go away. We will cry, get angry and despair again when we see the clothes and cherished possessions of the one who died.

In the third year, we begin to construct a new life and move on, but memories continue to return and we cry when we hear certain songs and watch favorite movies.

We think every death is wrong.
We’ve come to expect that everyone will live into their eighties, and think it’s a tragedy whenever anyone dies before then, especially children. Yet the death of parents in their eighties is also traumatic, because people who were good, amazing and central in our lives are gone. This is a loss, and we grieve.

There are no words that will take the pain away.

I don’t expect you to have words that will erase my pain. You can’t undo death. But your presence helps me bear the pressing weight of grief.


For what you can say and do to help those grieving, see my post: http://widowersgrief.blogspot.com/2014/09/im-listening-what-you-can-say-and-do.html


  1. Presence and listening, yes. Lots of people have made me not want to share anything with them. I wish I could point them towards this clear, helpful, frank post. When you strip everything back, take away all the irrelevant stuff - it's so simple. Just be here, and realise it's not about what you think.

  2. Well said, Emma. Well said. Just be here.

  3. For me it felt like the day he was killed I was thrown into a big hole. The world figured that I landed that day and would begin to climb out. But I just kept falling, I had no energy or desire to stop myself from falling further. Around the end of year two I grabbed and held on to keep from falling further, but that was about all I could do. I sat in the dark hole until I realized that sitting in the hole was far worse than trying to climb out. At three and a half years out I am finally trying to climb out, but it's hard and I thought I would see light by now, but know the only way out is to keep climbing. People think the shock is the day it happens or the funeral and you go up from there, so far from the truth.

    I would add this to the list of things not to do: do not tell the person what they still have to be grateful for. You may think you would still be grateful for certain things if you were me, but when I wish I was the one that died because the pain is so horrible, please know I can't find the part of my brain that holds gratitude. On a rational level, I know I have these things, but I do not feel them.

    1. Right. Whatever you have left pales in the face of what you've lost. The journey of grief is such a long one. I liken it to to some of the hikes I've taken in the mountains of Yosemite. The trail keeps going up, and when you reach the ridge that you thought was at the top, you see behind that that the trail keeps going higher. Eventually you've been hiking upwards for so long that you forget there's anything else and expect it will always be like this. But you keep climbing because that's what you now do. One day the climb won't be as steep. Thank you for your sharing.

  4. Thank you for the posts that make me think and give me a place to share. I found your blog through Refuge in Grief. I may need to take her writing course, I seem to have a lot to say...

    1. I think you would like Refuge in Grief writing course, and the community of like-minded people is so supportive.

  5. It really bugs me when people say or do these things. But I am glad that they haven't experienced loss in a way where they would know better. I need to be patient with the ones who tell me "it's time to get over...," because their time will come when they too can understand all this.

  6. They have no idea how much time is needed when someone close dies, no idea at all. And it's hard to be patient because we want to explain why it takes so much time. But we know that if they haven't experienced grief, no explanation will help. I wonder how long it took them to get over the death of a beloved family pet?