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.