Holiday season can be challenging for those who have recently experienced the loss of a loved one – without the daily noise, the to-dos, in the physical closeness of your family home, the feelings of emptiness and the imminent lack of the person you’re missing are not that easy to avoid.
In all the Christmas-jolliness, don’t forget to look out for those who might be needing a bit of extra support right now. But saying the “right thing” to a grieving friend can be hard – to make it a little less scary, Zsofi Borsi is sharing her personal list of do’s and don’ts of what to say.
I wrote this piece last spring, shortly after the death of my father. I was angry at the world and desperate to make some meaning – something “pragmatic” and bearable – from my feelings of confusion, loneliness, and dissociation. I publish it now with the hope that although it is entirely personal, some aspects of it are relatable, and perhaps even helpful to those who have experienced loss, or care about someone who has.
0. An essential quality that you should know about grief, that it is unpredictable. What I want and how I want to be treated is subject to immediate change.
1. However, asking me regularly how I am doing is never a bad idea. Just don’t mix it up with pitying me, which leads us to the next point.
2. Not pitying me should never be confused with pretending that everything is fine. I do want to be recognised as someone who right now needs more attention, though, because of going through a tough time. But this can be done without a sense of pity, and a real friend would never go there.
3. Phrases you should never say to me because they are most likely to make me feel even more confused and misunderstood:
- ‘I don’t know how you can be so strong’ (And any of the variations containing the word strong).
- ‘You must be feeling …. now’ (Anything – you don’t know how I feel, and that is okay, you don’t have to and that is not the goal of empathy. True empathy is understanding the other without knowing precisely the feelings they are going through.)
4. Do not expect me to call you. Either I am trying to repress the bad feelings and doing something to keep myself busy, in which case I will avoid talking to you and confronting reality. Or, I am feeling too horrible, angry and devastated to talk to anyone, especially knowing how bloody amazing everyone else must be feeling at the moment (which might not be true at all, nevertheless that is what I am going to be thinking).
5. So, instead of blaming the fact that you didn’t call me, simply acknowledge it is too hard to deal with all of this right now. Or, alternatively, just pick up the phone and call me, because chances are I am going to be flicking through social media and crying in bed. Either way: your call will be always appreciated.
6. You can still talk to me about anything. OK, within the limits of emotional intelligence of course. (But I can reassure you, you can still tell me about your pet dying).
7. Do not expect me to be down all the time, or to be a completely different person. I might be, but do not assume that by default. If I tell you that I am though, then don’t shut down and listen to me. Please.
8. I will not get offended if you ask me how “it happened”. If you don’t, that’s fine too, but it will make me wonder whether you really just don’t truly care or you’re just too weak to confront it. If the second, that’s completely understandable, but then tell me that. Because I don’t have a problem confronting it. I am doing it all the time anyway – in my head.
9. I am in need of honest, true people more than ever. I am going to be demanding, shocking, unpredictable, and most of all lonely, so any honest conversation or people’s desire to connect with me will be very much appreciated.
10. One of the best reactions someone ever gave to me was by simply asking, not in a sad or shocked way, of ‘What was your dad like? What did he like to do?’. This shows that they are not afraid of the topic, and acknowledge the existence of my father. It allows me to think about my dad in a positive way, instead of shutting out the entire reality of his past existence.
11. I am pretty much always up for an abstract, existentialist discussion about death, but I do realise that it is not everyone’s cup of tea.
12. If I tell you all this, think about it as a privilege. I trust you enough. I want you to acknowledge my loss. I don’t want you to ignore it. But you can do this in subtle ways, you never have to actually bring up the topic if you don’t want to.
13. I will never, ever judge a friend just because they don’t know how to deal with all this. I can sense if someone genuinely cares about me or just thinks of this as something that is complicating their own lives.
14. One thing to re-emphasise though is, I feel like everyone is afraid to ask how I am. So don’t be. Please, ask me how I am doing – that is all I want.
15. Oh, and never, ever expect me to react to what you say in a certain way. In fact, don’t expect anything from me at all.
My recommended sources in the topic of grief
- Griefcast: Each week, host Carian Lloyd invites well-known comedians to talk about death in a way that’s honest, accessible, and not totally saddening.
- Terrible, Thanks for Asking: Nora McInerny asks people to share how they really are, their stories often involving some kind of grief. It’s sad and happy at the same time – just like a lot of things in life.
- It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand: In her book, Megan Devine argues that grief isn’t something to be “solved”, and I couldn’t agree more.
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion: This book made me realise the fact that grief is truly different for everyone, and provides a personal perspective on its various stages.
- Music allows me to finally feel what I truly need to feel. My list of sad, yet in a weird way, uplifting songs (the ones I personally associate with my own grief) can be accessed here.
And finally, here is a video that pretty much explains what I was trying to say with my list, the takeaway message being that “the way to make someone feel better is to let them be in pain”:
Written by Zsofi Borsi. Check out her latest pieces here.