Saying the Wrong Thing to a Grieving Person, Part 2

I blogged last week about people saying “the wrong thing” to someone who is grieving and promised to circle back to that topic this week. By “wrong things,” I mean something that makes the grieving person feel worse rather than better. It might be something that makes the grieving person feel judged or misunderstood or it might make them feel more alone or isolated. Last week I focused on people asking questions or bringing up topics that are triggers for someone grieving. This week I want to focus on the types of questions or comments people say that make grieving folks think, “They should know better than to say that to a grieving person!”

As I touched on last week, as a grieving person, I often don’t know that something is going to upset me, so it’s difficult for me, in the moments when I’m thinking clearly, to really be upset with someone else for saying the “wrong thing.” Part of the problem is that grief can make those moments of clear thought few and far between. I also recognize that I have said the “wrong thing” to people many times.

Further complicating all this is that some of the people who have said the “wrong thing” to me are people who I know to be kind, thoughtful people. Here are some examples of things I consider to be the “wrong things” to say to a grieving person:

  • “You’re not over it yet?”
  •  “Oh, are you still sad?”
  • “But it’s been X days/weeks/months/years, shouldn’t you be over it by now?”
  • “I know how you feel. I lost someone I loved, too.”
  • [Upon noticing you’ve lost weight because grief killed your appetite] “I’m jealous that you’ve lost weight.”
  • “You’ll find someone else.”
  • Anything that begins with “at least,” as in “at least he’s no longer in pain” or “at least you still have one parent left” or “at least you got to see him before he died.”

It can be easy to see these “wrong things” as tone deaf, callous, malicious, rude, and even cruel. But I think there are some other possibilities. For example, when someone says “You’re not over it yet?,” they could mean

  • I have been so lucky in my life that I’ve never lost anyone important and I honestly have no idea how grief works, what it feels like, or how long it takes.
  • When I lost someone important to me, other people said this to me, so I thought it was a normal thing to say.
  • I care about you and it makes me feel helpless when I see you in so much pain. I wish you were no longer in pain. When will your pain end?
  • I’m having a tough day and now, on top of everything else, I have to be compassionate toward you. I’m experiencing compassion fatigue.

When someone says “I know how you feel. I lost someone I loved, too,” it’s easy for a grieving person to feel frustrated or even invisible. They might think, “You don’t know how I feel! I am not you. What you felt when you lost your loved one is entirely differently from how I feel!” Or they might think that your loss of a father is nothing like their loss of a sister. And these things might be true. After all, as I’ve said many times on this blog, every grieving experience is different. I know, for example, that my experience of losing my mother has been very different from losing my husband. But I can avoid feeling angry at the person who says “I know how you feel. I lost someone I loved, too” by giving them the benefit of the doubt. They could mean

  • I want you to feel less alone and if I tell you I have also felt grief, maybe you will feel less alone.
  • I don’t know exactly how you feel, but I do know that you feel very sad and I know how sad I felt when my loved one died.

Once I started consciously giving people the benefit of the doubt, it became much easier to respond without anger in the face of people saying “wrong things.” Here is what has been working for me:  

  • I treat questions like “Shouldn’t you be over it by now?” and “Oh, are you still sad?” as authentic questions. Someone asked me a few weeks ago when I thought I would be over my husband’s death and I said, “Gosh, I don’t think I’ll ever be over it. I hope I’ll be able to move forward at some point, but today is a tough day. Thanks for your concern.” It’s not the most graceful response, but it’s honest and treating the question as an authentic inquiry rather than a judgment helped me see the person asking as curious rather than disapproving.
  • I remember how many “wrong things” I myself said before I started really paying attention to grief when my husband died—and even after my husband died because I defaulted to speaking without carefully thinking about what I was saying. I have said “wrong things” to my husband’s brother and mother, both of whom are grieving as powerfully as I am. They gave me the benefit of the doubt, attributing genuine concern to me, which I appreciate—and although I did say the “wrong things,” my intentions were good. I am trying to extend that same grace to others.

Here are some pointers for folks wanting to know how to avoid saying “wrong things”:  

  • If you ask questions, try beginning with “what.” What do you need, what do you feel, what are you feeling, what can I do, what do you want, what do you miss? Yes/no questions almost always come across as trick questions. “Are you still sad?” seems to imply that the person should not still be sad. “Shouldn’t you be feeling better by now?” seems to imply that the person should be feeling better now. Rephrasing those questions to begin with “what” makes them “What can I do to help you in your sadness?” and “What do you need to feel better now?” (Note that the grieving person may say “I just want to feel sad now” or “There is nothing that will make me feel better now.” Those are fine answers and answers I have given to similar questions.)
  • Don’t give advice unless asked to. You might say, “I have experience with this and would like to share what I learned, if that’s ok.” Then if they say no, keep it to yourself.
  • Skip any compliments on how you think the grieving person is handling their situation. This includes remarking on weight loss. Focus on offering support, not appraising their response to grief or their body.
  • Any comment that includes the phrase “at least” is best not made. These comments minimize the loss and are examples of toxic positivity. As uncomfortable as you may be seeing someone else sad, feeling sad in the face of loss is completely normal and healthy.

Saying the Wrong Thing to a Grieving Person, Part 1

I’m writing this week and next week about the concept of saying “the wrong thing” to someone who is grieving. I see online and hear from people often that folks hold back from reaching out to someone they know who is grieving because they don’t want to “say the wrong thing.” People express concerns about upsetting the grieving person or reminding them of their loss. The grieving people I know through support groups do voice frustration and even anger about people saying “the wrong thing.” By “wrong things,” I mean something that makes the grieving person feel worse rather than better. It might be something that makes the grieving person feel judged or misunderstood or it might make them feel more alone or isolated.

I’ve mostly written here about the loss of my husband, but today I am focusing on my grieving of my mother, who died when I was 12. There are two incidents that really stand out for me when I think of friends saying “the wrong thing”:

1988. It was my first year in college and as Mother’s Day approached, I walked with some friends to the Walgreens near campus. Someone mentioned getting cards for our moms. I had mentioned to this group that my mother had died when I was 12, but of course, none of them (or I, for that matter) knew how I would feel about a conversation about Mother’s Day cards. They talked amongst themselves about ways they had celebrated their moms on Mother’s Day in the past as we walked, and I felt myself getting more and more agitated. Just moments earlier, I had been enjoying hanging out with my friends, but I suddenly found myself swimming in powerful emotion—feeling disconnected from and unseen by my friends, missing my mother, remembering the very complicated relationship I had with her. It came upon me without warning. I had told stories about my mom to this same group just a few days ago and not had any kind of negative emotion arise. But in this moment, I felt like I was outside my own body. I stopped walking and blurted out, “I don’t want to talk about Mother’s Day! I don’t want to look at Mother’s Day cards!” My three friends stopped and turned back to look at me, shocked and uncomfortable. I don’t remember what they said, but I do remember the genuine surprise and confusion on their faces. They had been caught up in the moment, thinking about themselves and their mother, not me and my missing mother. And although I didn’t handle the situation perfectly, I did make my needs clear: I wanted the topic of conversation to shift.

2012: I went out with a group of other mothers for brunch on Mother’s Day. Mimosas were ordered and people started remembering their own mothers, telling stories about how much they still depended on or felt connected to their mothers. I was quiet, enjoying the stories others were telling and feeling confident that because everyone in the group knew my mom had died when I was a kid that there was no pressure on me to contribute. At some point, however, someone in the group asked me how my mother died. Again, I was engulfed by strong emotions. It felt to me like all conversation at the table stopped and everyone turned to look at me. I felt a swell of anger that I was being put on the spot to talk about a painful memory in front of an audience. I sputtered, “I don’t want to talk about my dead mother on Mother’s Day!” Everyone at the table stared for a moment and then I went to the restroom to pull myself together. By the time I returned a few minutes later, conversation had moved on. As in the first incident, I wasn’t graceful about it, but I did make my needs known: I did not want to talk about my mother.

The two incidents were nearly 25 years apart and in both, my mother had been dead for long enough that the loss no longer felt fresh to me. “My mother died when I was a kid” was a phrase I said commonly and with no emotion; it was a fact about me that I could rattle off easily most days. When I think about these two incidents, I realize that the exact same conversations on any other day of the year wouldn’t have bothered me. It was the context of Mother’s Day that made otherwise benign conversation topics and questions upsetting to me.

I felt in both incidents as if the people around me should have known better—that my friends in college should have known I wouldn’t want to talk about Mother’s Day cards and that my adult mom friends should have known I wouldn’t want to talk about how my mother died. But how would they know? I didn’t even know until the moments were happening that I would react so strongly.

I now know that Mother’s Day is a trigger for me and I lay low on that day. Recognizing that it wasn’t what people said to me but the context of Mother’s Day that upset me helps me feel compassion for the people who said “the wrong thing” and for myself in my socially awkward responses. Grieving is messy and being around a grieving person is messy. It’s ok to be messy. It’s normal to be messy, especially when grieving.

I don’t have a neat and tidy bulleted list of things to do or avoid when it comes to saying “the wrong thing.” My advice boils down to this:

  • Grievers, make your needs known, even if you do it awkwardly. If you need to not talk about something, say so. If you need to be quiet, say so. If you need to be alone, say so.  
  • Friends of grievers, when the griever makes their needs known, don’t explain or defend yourself, just do what you can do reasonably to accommodate their needs, whether that means changing the topic of conversation, letting a question go unanswered, or something else.

And for both grievers and friends of grievers, I suggest giving each other and yourselves grace. It’s going to be messy.

Living through Special Dates

I’ve been told several times that one of the hardest aspects of the first year after a loved one dies is surviving each holiday, birthday, and anniversary without them for the first time. I have now made it through my late husband’s favorite holiday, Halloween; Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s; and his birthday, earlier this week. The entire month leading up to Halloween hit me hard (I blogged about it here), and then Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas felt relatively easy.

New Year’s Eve and January 1 were surprisingly tough. Entering a new year that Tom will never know or be part of felt like closing a door on him, like officially declaring him part of my past. He will never know about my trip this summer to Europe or about the memoir I am writing. He won’t be laughing with me the next time the dogs do something goofy. His favorite shirt after his stroke had a picture of the Jeff Bridges character from The Big Lebowski and the quote, “Life goes on, man.” That thought ran through my mind all day on January 1. Life does go on. I am still here, sifting through the weird bureaucracy and joy of life. The thought was simultaneously heart-wrenching and comforting.

For his birthday this week, I was originally going to invite his mother and son and my daughter to join me for a little remembrance at his bench, but COVID exposures scuttled that plan. Instead, I visited his bench with one of our dogs twice, posted a remembrance on Facebook, and created a Facebook fundraiser for one of his favorite charities, the Denver Dumb Friends League. I also attended a remote grief support group meeting. I theoretically worked that day, but I kept my camera off during meetings and got little done. I spent most of the day scrolling through photos and videos of him on my phone and ipad, talking aloud to him, and wandering around the house touching things that remind me of him—his yellow lifejacket, which I brought in from the garage and hung in the bedroom closet; the tiles in the downstairs bathroom, which he installed; the desk in the front room that he turned into part of his knife-sharpening station after his stroke; the Buddha statue in the guest bedroom.

Since his death, I’ve reflected often on how although we committed to spending the rest of our lives together, it never occurred to me until he had his stroke that I could outlive him. When I thought before his stroke about “spending the rest of our lives together,” I imagined we would die together. I realize now how naïve that thought is. It was always much more likely that one of us would outlive the other. How my mind managed to evade that thought for 12 years is probably related to my age—I imagine older couples might be more cognizant of the likelihood of widowhood. But maybe not. I’m sure I’ll be in love again, and in this moment, it seems impossible to think about being in love with someone and not also anticipating that one of us is going to outlive the other. But maybe the thrill of new love blurs that thought.

The next occasion to survive is our anniversary in March, and then the big doozy: my birthday. It was on my birthday 2021 that I made the decision to remove him from life support. I have no idea how either of these days will hit me, but I am keeping them clear on my schedule and allowing myself to be open to whatever emotions come. I’ve indicated them as “Remembrance Days” on my calendar.

Widow Brain (aka Mom Brain or Trauma Brain)

Last week I mentioned a trip to Portland, Oregon and said it was my first solo trip since my husband’s death. A day or so later, I remembered that it’s actually my second solo trip since his death—I took the train from Denver to Glenwood Springs by myself in November. That was my first solo trip since Tom’s death and it was amazingly bittersweet. I cried nearly the entire six hour train ride there and then did the same thing on the way back. I went to the Glenwood Springs hot springs alone, forcing myself to do a family- and couples-oriented activity all by myself because I knew I needed to get through the “first time” sooner rather than later. It was an incredible experience that left me feeling both drained and proud. How could I have forgotten something as monumental as that?

The answer is simple: widow brain. This is a close cousin of pregnancy brain, mom brain, and trauma brain. These are all names for feelings of fogginess, slowness, forgetfulness, short-term memory loss, and other cognitive blips that often accompany major life events. It is a totally normal neurological response to stress and happens because the brain is conserving resources. I like the non-technical explanation of widow brain from Widow411:

“When something traumatic happens, it’s like your brain says, ‘Ok let’s take this down a notch’ because you can’t regulate yourself so your brain’s going to do it for you.”

That captures how my brain feels a lot of the time: like it’s running on low power.

My widow brain has manifested itself in many ways:

  • I have trouble learning and retaining new things. Being a widow means having to learn to do things my husband used to take care of, so the fact that learning new things is particularly challenging right now feels ironic. A generous friend took care of my sprinkler system after Tom died and tried to explain to me how to do it myself, but I just shook my head and told him my brain couldn’t absorb the information. More recently, my daughter had to explain to me four or five times, very slowly, how to introduce our reactive dog to someone new. I kept asking her to explain the process to me one more time. Finally, I wrote down what she told me and then held that piece of paper in my hand while doing the introduction. I just could not retain the information or the order of steps.
  • I am forgetful. The Glenwood Springs trip is just one example. I have forgotten names of people I have known for years, where I keep things I use regularly, tasks I do at the same time every day (the poor dogs have gotten a very, very, very late dinner a few times because I forgot to feed them and couldn’t figure out why they were pacing and eyeing me expectantly), and more. I have forgotten events I am looking forward to. One morning in December, for example, I looked at my calendar and was excited to see that I had scheduled time to meet a good friend I hadn’t seen for a while for a drink that afternoon. I was horrified to get a text from her that afternoon telling me she was running late but would be over soon—I had completely forgotten by then! Luckily she was running late and I was able to scramble to get ready by the time she arrived.
  • I lose track of time. Time feels particularly elastic to me right now. I skip meals because I don’t realize lunch or dinner time has come and gone (I have little appetite anyway these days, so my body doesn’t reliably tell me to eat). I stay up later than I planned to because I have no idea what time it is and I’m tired all the time, so being tired isn’t a reliable indicator of bed time. I walk the dogs for an extra half hour because I don’t know how long I’ve been walking.
  • I can’t find my phone. I used to be one of those weirdos who never loses their phone or keys. The first time I lost my phone was the day after Tom had his stroke—I put it down somewhere in the hospital and realized some time later I didn’t have it. Fortunately, someone came across it and brought it to the hospital lost and found. Since then, I’ve misplaced my phone frequently and thoroughly lost it a few times in the house. For those of you who lose your phone all the time, this may seem like a normal event, but for me, it is always accompanied by the thought, “But I don’t lose my phone! How could this be happening?”  
  • I feel disconnected from what I’m doing. I often find myself “going through the motions” rather than feeling engaged in what I’m doing. Thankfully, this happens less and less; of all the widow brain symptoms I’m experiencing, this one seems to be lessening the most dramatically recently. I was worried during the fall that I would never feel connected to my job again. My work as a college professor has been deeply meaningful to me in the past and it was upsetting to feel disconnected from it after Tom died. I was relieved to go back to work this past Monday and feel some excitement about the upcoming semester. It’s a familiar old feeling I hadn’t experienced in a while.

Whether or not you are experiencing grief over a loved one right now, what I’ve described as widow brain may sound like it fits your current experience. That could be because all of us—every single one of us—is experiencing some trauma because of the pandemic right now. We’re all working through the losses accumulating related to changes in work, housing, relationships, health, and more. Grief is about loss. So we all have trauma brain to some degree.

I’m trying to laugh about the silly things I do because of my widow brain and apologize when necessary. I try to appreciate that what I’m experiencing is normal and actually an indication that my brain is healthy. I meditate and chant to help settle my mind. I occasionally do yoga and every single time tell myself I should do it more often; yoga helps unify the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which can help with cognitive function. Note to self: do more yoga.