“I don’t know what to say”

A woman approached me at a local event 3 years after Nico died.  She was someone who had pointedly avoided me immediately after Nico died, crossing the road and concentrating on the contents of her bag with such intensity I thought she’d spotted a winning lottery ticket in there. 

She may have been planning to give me some kind of explanation and apology but I’ll never know as she actually said was: “I didn’t speak to you when Nico died because I didn’t know what to say”.  Having delivered this line, she looked so smug and pleased with herself, so “well, that box is ticked” and all very like “I’ve just donated to Children in Need”, that I just wasn’t able to hold back.

I replied “Oh, but I can help you there.  A bit late for me – but probably useful for the future. What you say is “I’m so sorry to hear that Nico has died. He was so lovely/kind/funny/gorgeous.  It must be very hard for you” Then I walked away. I think we were pretty much done.

In the weeks and months immediately after Nico’s death people crossed the road when they saw me.  We live in a large village and everyone knows Nico’s dad and they know I’m Nico’s mum.  In the first weeks when people crossed the road, I thought it was a bit strange but the penny didn’t drop.  After a month or so, I realised they saw me and then crossed, or suddenly became completely engrossed in their bags or phones.  When I realised what was happening it left me with a horrible chilled sensation.  I was already struggling with feelings of isolation and the realisation that people would rather do anything, than face the possibility of having to speak to me, was more than hurtful.  It felt like a hard, cold ball in my chest, pressing down and making it hard to breathe.  I stopped going out.

Clearly some people are ignorant when it comes to speaking to bereaved parents, but what really makes me angry about this is the way they are letting themselves off the hook. As if the excuse of “not knowing what to say” closes down the discussion and negates the effect that this can have on the grieving family.  It’s just not good enough.

Here are just a small sample of some of the many lines I’ve heard and read, many, many times over the last few years:

“I didn’t speak to her because I didn’t know what to say”

“I felt a bit bad because I avoided her, but I just didn’t know how to say it”

“I felt a bit awkward when I saw her, so I stayed on the other side of the room”

“I don’t really do emotions and I’d only make it worse, so I’m just staying away”

“I mean it’s just so hard isn’t it?  You just never know what is the right thing to say”

Etc, etc, etc……….

No doubt you’ve heard all these lines too.  The one thing they all have in common is that they are statements in which they choose to normalise their behaviour, which then makes it excusable and understandable.  This sustains and develops a way of hiding from the truth and making sure at the same time they feel comfortable.  Clearly their comfort is ultimately more important than ours.  By standing together in a gang of normality, it changes the narrative so that it’s us, the bereaved ones, who are the problem and we just ought to understand how difficult we are to talk to and we ought to be more sympathetic to their discomfort! 

I really don’t buy this.  We need to be acknowledging the importance of support and sympathy in a time of grief and we need to develop healthy grief conversations.  These can be started in several ways and sometimes the lead in these conversations has to come from us, the bereaved.  Hopefully, if we take the lead, it will help non-bereaved people find better ways to talk to us about what we are going through.  Here are some of my ideas which I’d like to share with you:

  1. When people ask how you are – don’t just say “fine”.  Although you may feel as if you want to just close down the conversation, do you really want the other person to walk away thinking that’s true?  Are you actually fine? Instead why not develop conversations around grief truths.  You could try saying “I’m still grieving, so I have good days and bad days” or “We are still grieving so when we went on holiday, it was lovely in many ways but sometimes just having fun feels difficult”.  But above all, acknowledge that they have potentially opened a grief conversation by starting your reply with “Thank you for asking, I really appreciate that you care how I’m doing”.
  1. Returning to work and speaking with work colleagues is definitely a minefield. My friend and colleague Frank told me “I can recall walking through the corridors at work wondering why people were not coming up to me and hugging me. I knew they had their own worries and I got all of that, but it was difficult to balance profound grief with being in an ordinary work environment in which I would be expected not to show this hurt. As a result, I often felt silenced at work and my blood often ran cold at the unemotional environment.” I had a job where I was surrounded by people and having to “perform”.  I had to have a super-smiley face, full of energy, commitment, confidence and dynamics and many of the people around me were neither friends nor colleagues; they have paid to be in the room with me.  I could not possibly share my inner turmoil and grief with them.  It would have been be completely inappropriate.  However, it left me feeling so isolated and greatly enhanced the PTSD I started to suffer with.  Looking back, I wish I had done things differently and opened up that conversation.  They might then have felt able to speak to me about my son’s death.  Now I think an email sent to all colleagues and students saying what I hard time I was having and what I felt I needed from them, might have been helpful to me in the long term.
  1. Whatever you say, people will sometimes reply in platitudes. Platitudes can be a useful place to hide in, as it means they don’t have to go deeper or be truthful with themselves (or you).  That will be annoying but you can challenge these platitudes.  One of my neighbours told me quite casually “time is a great healer”.  I replied “Thank you for saying that, but I don’t agree.  I think that over time your bereavement becomes part of who you are and part of your life, but you never get over it, why would you?”  They looked shocked, then humbled and then replied simply “I’d never thought about it like that”.  I went away feeling slightly lighter and maybe they went away and thought about grief a little bit differently.
  1. Don’t be afraid to instigate a healthy grief conversation and reply with words that express your own personal truth.  Try not to be aggressive.  If people feel you’re attacking them, they switch to being defensive.  What’s important about a healthy grief conversation is that is consists of all the participants talking and listening to each other.  Anger can be a block that stops people from really listening to each other.
  1. If you keep going with this, eventually people will take their cue from you and your words and start giving you more truthful replies.  It might start immediately or it may take years – that largely depends on each person.  Some people may find these conversations awkward and they may just close you down, but that’s about them, not about you. Some people may even go back to crossing the street when they see you coming and that might be hard but sadly, some people are uncomfortable connecting with emotions.  Even if they think about what you’ve said and then dismiss it, you haven’t wasted your time and they may give better support to someone else in the future.

Whatever happens, wherever your “good grief” conversations take you and no matter what they achieve, there’s a very good chance you will feel better for doing it.  If after each encounter you feel lighter and you feel that you have honoured the memory of your loved one and honoured your grief, you will have done very well indeed.

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