When it comes to figuring out which condolences to say to a grieving friend, a situation that makes most humans like me prefer life in a forced labor camp or getting that root canal I’ve been putting off, I can say I’ve been there.
Fortunately, back then I relied on a tried and true tactic I’d used most of my life for overcoming my timidity and insecurities about saying condolences. Which I’ll share with you now.
I used to always start by pepping myself up—a few affirmations worked nicely, such as, “You can do this.”
That was immediately followed by giving myself a little extra push to help me reach out and say something, preferably something meaningful.
Then I’d offer one or two of the condolences I’d been hearing my whole life.
Which 100% of the time gave me a success rate of absolute zero. The griever looked hurt. I looked worse.
Invariably this pep-up-and-push-on-through-it tactic caused me to say condolences like these that many grievers find hurtful.*
At least your brother is in a better place now. 👎
You have lung cancer? Oh… Were you a smoker? 👎
Your son’s getting divorced? Well, at least they weren’t married for a long time. 👎
Yes, I’ve said those beauties.
Then, on October 12, 2000, at 3:42 in the afternoon, in a single nanosecond we lost our precious 12-day old daughter. Which changed everything.
What also happened in that very same instant was unexpected. As my hubby and I huddled together wailing on our living room couch, unbeknownst to us, we were being airlifted over an invisible grand canyon to the opposite side—but our friends were not.
We found ourselves alone across a vast chasm, on the receiving end of the same type of condolences I used to say, only now they hurt like hell. Every. Single. One.
Oh hon, you can have another baby. 👎
How long did you have her? Only 13 days? Well at least you didn’t get too close. 👎
What do you think the lesson is in this for you? 👎
You know, God only gives us as much as we can handle. 👎
Yes, my husband and I received these beauties and many more like them (See my Condolences Pocket Guide for a complete list), but we listened with a smile, and we said thank you to Every. Single. One.
My grief plodded on in that possessive way grief has of owning your personality for way longer than you ever could imagine. Actually, grief is less plodding and more like living with an angry bobcat or a spurned lover—it wrecks your life on so many levels.
But healing does happen eventually in its own dang time. So, about the time I thought I might be able to cross back over that chasm to join “normal” life with my friends and family, my dad died—another searing loss, more condolences. Then a year and a half after that and another baby later, we lost our eight-month-old son (details on that in another blog). Now, not only was I broken, hopeless, depressed and exhausted, but I knew I’d lost a lot of ground on ever crossing back over that canyon to rejoin my family and friends.
The reason for this gulf between me ‘n’ hubby and our support circle remained a mystery for years. We couldn’t understand why everyone we knew wasn’t clutching their heart and sobbing with us. Our friends and family were mystified about why we didn’t appreciate their instructive condolences, and they were hurt when we soon pulled away from them.
However, the more the years wore on, bit by bit I began to understand what our friends and family were going through in their attempts to connect with us. In many ways, for the last 20 years, without knowing it, I’ve been scaling down the wall of grief on my side of the canyon, trekking across the vast desert canyon floor and then climbing hand over fist up the other side where my friends and family lived, all so I could reconnect with them and see life and loss from their perspective.
Along the way, I’ve learned many things from having been on both sides of grief. I learned that you care—a lot! That you really want to know what to say and do that will actually help a grieving friend.
I learned that grievers and their support system, because they are within the same specific “loss group,” can’t offer each other much teaching or advice on how to bridge the gap between them, but that people from different loss groups can help each other learn to say Be a Bridge Condolences.
My heart is with you in your loss. I’m sending hugs and prayers. 👍
I just don’t know what to say. To lose your child is so terrible. I love you. 👍
I wish I could fix your suffering, but I’m with you, whatever it takes. 👍
As I got farther and farther from my losses, I began to see this chasm between grievers and their support people as a measure of the gap between what grievers need and our inability to console from the heart. Turns out there’s a good reason for this gap.
Hundreds of books, blogs and support groups exist to help grievers with their losses; but very little is dedicated to helping friends and family of the bereaved.
I wrote a little pocket guide to condolences, then started this website with its Conversation and its Blog, all so that friends and family can have the information they need to truly help their griever. If together we can save just one griever from suffering the loneliness of feeling unseen and misunderstood, then we will have offered true consolation. We will have learned to Be a Bridge over the vast chasm to the other side of the world where our grieving friend lives.
How do we do this?
First, we learn to stand by our griever as an unflinching witness to their suffering, which is what helps them heal. Second, we learn to speak from our heart, the place from which all helpful condolences arise.
My vision for this website is that we become a community of people that learn to span the not always obvious but very real chasm that can exist between grievers and their friends. I’ve created this space for all of us to be in a conversation together about what is true consolation. For only together can we learn to Be a Bridge to grievers.
Together we can Be a Bridge.
*Due to the numerous cultural and personal variables within each of us, we must each find our own words for our condolences. Those suggested here are offered as guidelines developed after years of listening to grievers speak their mind and heart.
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