It’s an awkward situation. Someone you know has just lost a close friend or family member or significant other, and because you are a kind and decent human being, you want to express to them that you’re sorry for their loss. What do you say? What do you do? Nothing feels quite right. I’ve been in this position before, and it’s difficult.
Recently, my sister’s sudden death put me on the receiving end of these sympathies, and I can officially tell you that there is no one right thing to say. However, I have compiled a list of things not to say, which I present today for your education/so you can be less of a dick.
On January 7th, a little over six months ago, my older sister Tamar died of injuries she sustained in a bus crash a few days earlier. She was 20. She had just finished a college semester abroad in Ecuador, and was touring South America with friends. In Bolivia, they visited some remote mountain salt flats, and on the way back to the city, the bus crashed into another vehicle. On the day she was due back from her trip, we received a box of her ashes instead.
Tamar at the salt flats. It’s surreal to think that she was only a few hours away from the accident.
Since then, I’ve received just about every possible reaction, some of which were deeply dick-tastic (I know that sounds like a good thing, but in this scenario it’s bad). Here’s how not to be a dick to someone who has just suffered a loss. “Suffered a loss.” Gross. I sound like a bad pamphlet on dealing with death. (Trust me, I’ve been given many).
Don’t expect them to be sad at the “right” times.
We held two memorial services for my sister; one in our hometown and one at her college. I gave the eulogy at both, and didn’t cry at either. In fact, by the second one, I was so sick of people looking at me like a freak for not crying that I faked it. I thought that because I hadn’t cried at her memorial, ostensibly the saddest part of the whole process, it meant I was done crying. This proved to be wholly untrue.
A few months later, when I started to cry in the AT&T store because we had to drop her phone number from our family plan. Your friend may be sad at time you don’t expect them to be, and less sad at times you do expect them to be. It doesn’t mean they’re not grieving or healing properly, it just means that everyone is different. YOU GOT THAT, MOM?
Also, if I am having a good time, please don’t take the opportunity to wrap me in a rib-crushing hug and tell me you’re so sorry and you loved my sister so much and you miss her every day. I’m not happy that often (see: recently dead sister), and it really truly sucks to have one of the few times I’m not thinking about Tamar spoiled by someone who’s really sad. I’d love to talk to you another time, but not now. I don’t care how drunk you are.
People seem to have this weird need to grieve with me at a moment that’s convenient for them, and it really bums me out. Frankly, it’s kinda selfish. You may be sad too, but I can only take care of so many people and I need to prioritize myself.
Don’t say you can relate if you can’t.
I’m sorry (actually no, I’m not), but your fucking pet is not the same thing as my sister. One woman I knew told me that she could understand what I was going through because she had recently lost her beloved cat to feline AIDS. I’m sure she loved her cat a lot, but I just don’t believe the death of her cat was as traumatizing as that of my sister. It’s also insulting to compare my feelings for my sister to yours about your great-great-grandcousin-in-law Merv or whoever who you never met.
It’s OK to not be able to relate. Just say, “I’m sorry, I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Don’t minimize your friend’s experience or exaggerate yours. And don’t compare their loved ones to animals.
Tamar (right) and I when I visited her at college in winter 2012. Please note that she is a human, and not a fucking cat.
Don’t make it OK (and don’t make it religious unless you know for sure).
The single most annoying thing that anyone has said to me since Tamar died is, “Everything happens for a reason.” If you say this to me, I will fucking deck you, and I don’t care if you are my great aunt. I understand that people are trying to convey something about how good things can come from dark times, but it sounds like they’re saying “Your sister died? KARMA, BITCH!” Don’t try and see the positive in it, or make it seem OK. It will never be OK.
Similarly, a girl I know told me the story of a friend she had as a little girl. Her friend had childhood cancer and died a few years after they met. She told me, “I believe that that she was put on earth to teach me about death.”
I’ve dealt with a lot of aggravating bullshit since Tamar died (for example, my abusive ex-boyfriend showed up to the funeral 15 minutes late and high and disturbed the whole thing by marching up to sit in the front row), but this was the single worst thing anyone has said to me. People are not metaphors or life lessons. They exist outside of your selfish reasons.
Another thing people say a lot is, “She’s in a better place now.” I don’t care if that place is all popcorn and puppies and new episodes of "Homeland" and never having to clean your room (Tamar’s version of Heaven), I would rather have her here. Here was good enough. She doesn’t need to be somewhere better.
This also has a religious ring to it that bothers me. I’m sure many people are comforted by their religion or spirituality after a loss, but not me. Someone told me that, “Jesus picks the prettiest flowers first.” This was deeply weird because a) Jesus that is creepy of you to have a bouquet of human flowers put those down dude those are people b) my family is not religious at all and c) if we were, we’d be Jewish. In my opinion, it’s fine to say, “I’m praying for you,” but don’t take it more religious than that unless you know for sure how they feel about it.
Don’t police how they talk about it.
When I was at my sister’s college for the memorial service there, her roommate Haley took me to a party and was introducing me to people. She just told them my name, which left people looking confused. They had no idea who I was because I am not (yet) a one-name celebrity. I clarified to a few people by saying I was, “Tamar’s sister,” but Haley found that a bit morose.
Instead, I started introducing myself by saying, “Hi! I’m Liat, you may know me from my sister being dead,” which I thought was hilarious. Because Haley is awesome, she also found it kind of funny, but most people were really weirded out. (I don’t blame them though, I would be too).
I’m not saying you should encourage your friend to do weirdo shit like that all the time, but sometimes they’ll need to joke about it. It’s fine. I personally find joking about it really healing. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be comfortable with you joking about it too. Pretty much just have some common sense and manners and don’t be a total dickbasket.
After someone dies, people have a tendency to put them on a pedestal and extol and exaggerate all of their best traits. It’s natural and I understand the temptation. However, sometimes I like to talk shit about my sister. It doesn’t mean I don’t love her more than anyone or any thing it means that sometimes I get sick of her being deified and want to think of her as she actually was: occasionally an asshole.
Our relationship was complicated and often difficult. At the time she died, I was incredibly angry with her. I can’t pretend that everything was great and that I didn’t hate her sometimes, because it wasn’t and I did. Plus, I was always living in her shadow when she was alive. I don’t like feeling like she’s better dead than I am alive. I mean, come onnnnnnnnnnn. She’s made of fucking ashes now you guys. I’m prettier than ashes.
Don’t not talk about it.
I know that with all these rules it may seem like the easiest thing to do would be to not say anything at all. But this is the NUMBER ONE WRONGEST THING YOU COULD POSSIBLY DO. Trust. Nothing bothers me than people who I know know about it (the principal sent out an email telling my whole high school), but never said anything to me.
No, “I’m sorry,” no, My sympathies,” no nothing. Even if you aren’t close with someone, you should still at least say you’re sorry. Even all the jocks who would soon bully me into quitting school all showed up to the memorial service (wearing their letter jackets. Who does that?).
Even if you don’t talk about it that much, I do. I knew my sister for 17 years and was very close with her. I have a lot of stories and anecdotes about her. So don’t act like it’s all weird and taboo for me to mention her in casual conversation. Don’t gasp and act all shocked like I just admitted to being a murder or liking Macklemore. You try never mentioning one of the biggest influences on your whole life again. Don’t change the subject, either.
Even if you follow all of these rules, it might still be awkward. That’s the nature of the beast. It’s impossible to talk to someone about their dead loved one without some amount of awkwardness. Don’t let that stop you, though. You just need to know the rules. And bring them brownies. They’ll need them.