The consequences of this ineptitude have been tragic for all those who mourn, though its relationship to their suffering is not so obvious, even to them. That’s how culture works sometimes, blinding us to things that would be painfully obvious if we lived in another place or time. So let's take a moment and look at some of the subtle ways in which this very common phrase can actually be harmful to the griever.
The Grieving Need More Than Clichés.
One problem is simply the overwhelming, almost exclusive use of this one phrase, simultaneously reserving it for the family. It’s almost as though the friends aren’t really grieving, but in the days after a death this one phrase drones on for the surviving family members. It betrays a lack of original thought, and is so pervasive it becomes irritating. Oh wait, that’s the definition of a cliché!
Saying “I’m sorry for your loss” is a bit like saying “Have a nice day” to the cashier at the convenience store. When responses are this culturally programmed and no thought is required, how sincere is the sentiment? As more people start to become irritated by it, choosing this particular phrase because it feels “safe” isn’t really that safe anymore.
Using clichés and platitudes with a grieving person can come across as meaningless, annoying, insincere and dismissive. Hopefully all of us would want to say or do something better if only we felt more competent, which leads us to one of the greatest challenges facing those who grieve: isolation. When we don’t feel competent to help --- and most people don’t --- the natural tendency is to simply avoid the suffering person. So the unintended result of our incompetence with grief is ultimately increased isolation and prolonged suffering, which in turn leads to a host of other problems, such as a heavy reliance on prescription medications, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce and suicide.
Clarity Works. Euphemisms Don’t.
Another problem with “I’m sorry for your loss” is that it's linguistically incorrect. The verb "to lose" is active, something YOU do. The reality of grief is that someone else died. You didn't lose them in the same way you would lose your car keys or your wallet, and depending on your religious convictions you may not feel like you "lost" them at all.
I first discovered the idea of ancestors being present, not as the ghosts I had grown up afraid of, but as people of my own lineage to be cared for and spoken to, through my studies in Anthropology and subsequent exposure to Native American cultures. Wherever colonization hasn’t completely destroyed it, there is a greater sense of community --- a greater sense of belonging to a place, a people and a lineage --- in these cultures than there is in the dominant culture I grew up in.
The simple fact of the matter is that lots of people in my life have died, and for most of my life I thought of them as lost because I was so well trained by the culture. During those years my grief was usually suppressed, but it was never really resolved. The thing about grief is that no matter how fast you try to run away, it has great endurance and can always catch up. My grief for those already departed returned a little stronger as each new ending piled on top of those that came before, creating a multiplying effect. Time wasn’t healing those untreated wounds as I had been promised, it was making them worse.
These days I’ve become accustomed to drawing comfort from the spiritual presence of departed loved ones. I know some might find it strange, but I often speak to the ones I love when I’m sitting out somewhere enjoying a sunrise. If it does seem strange then consider that people from all faiths that I’ve spoken with seem to agree; they too have felt the presence of a deceased relative.
This isn’t ancestor worship. Personally I don’t think of myself as “praying” to the dead. They don’t talk back and I would certainly never pay money to a channeler or New Age shaman to speak for them. If they don’t talk to me when I’m sitting by the lake at sunrise, why would they talk to a complete stranger?
Talking to them is very personal and conversational. It’s about whatever I’m feeling and how much I miss them. This is just one of several key components --- like meditation, being in nature or remembering special occasions --- I use to process my grief whenever it shows comes. Whether one wishes to think about that in terms of psychology or in terms of the spiritual language I prefer, seems completely irrelevant. All I know is that I find it helpful.
Using the language of loss as a euphemism for death is one of many ways in which our culture perpetuates the death phobia and keeps us trapped. Spoken by a griever (e.g. "I lost my mother in 2015") it's being used to avoid saying the word "died". Spoken to a griever it expresses pity combined with distancing (e.g. I’m sorry for your loss). Yet experts in the field of grief care (Stephen Jenkinson et. al.) are starting to recommend using the language of suffering, healing and overcoming challenges instead. Still, virtually all the literature is still saturated with the old language.
It’s The Wrong Mental Programming.
Sheer frequency alone should cause us to question what the psychological impact of choosing "loss" as the culturally endorsed message might be. "I'm sorry for your loss" refers to something that has diminished you, and in this context it's a permanent condition. More importantly, it also refutes the notion that there are might be an upside to grief, a spiritual deepening that can result from being exposed to something that’s an inevitable consequence of being born and choosing to love each other. Finally, it makes your own death seem even more frightening as the time when you too, will be lost.
Just saying "I'm so sorry to hear about your mother" is actually better by itself than adding "for your loss". That’s because there simply are no potential benefits to be found when all of our language about death and grieving is centered on loss. By shifting to the language of suffering, healing and overcoming challenges instead, death and grieving can once again become the redemptive processes I’ve come to believe they were meant to be.
Having personally experienced the old cliché and its real world application perhaps thousands of times over several decades, I remember quite vividly the first time someone said, "I'm sorry for your suffering. I'm here with you". How radically different those words felt! Even though it was said by a complete stranger, the impact it had on me was far greater than all the close friends who had been sorry for my loss, but not present with my suffering.
I immediately knew that the stranger sitting next to me on a park bench somehow understood something close friends and family had missed; something I had missed too, vaguely sensing it but never quite being able to express. First of all she knew I was suffering, and her use of the word “sorry” came across as authentic compassion rather than pity. Second, there was no distancing or avoidance in the way she said it. She knew what I needed most: validation of my grief and someone willing to listen, even if that included some tears. Best of all there was no judgment.
The Challenges Ahead.
Significant numbers of people are starting to open up about their dissatisfaction with this worn out cliché. Others seem almost determined to defend it as the ultimate expression of sympathy. What the defenders don’t seem to understand is that no one will ever be offended or hurt by not saying “I’m sorry for your loss,” but 25% or more of the people it’s said to will be silently cringing on the inside, and that number is growing steadily as people get exposed to other options and the possibilities that arise from them. Anyone who doesn’t believe people are being irritated, offended and hurt should Google “don’t say I’m sorry for your loss”.
The Grief Recovery Method I eventually choose to specialize in is not about how to lose a loved one and move on, it’s about how to process incomplete emotions connected to the deceased, carry our cherished memories of them with us and regain some enthusiasm for life, all the while knowing as we now do something more profound about its impermanence. What people with real expertise understand is that simply being willing to listen and be present is far more important than saying something profound, but clichés and platitudes never really work.
For those wanting to improve their grief communication by eliminating clichés with more accurate, helpful and authentic responses, but still aren’t sure what to say, here are a few other choices in no particular order. These are just a few of the many options available, and they can be combined in various ways to make them both personal and appropriate.
- I’m sorry you’re suffering right now, but I want you to know that I’m here with
you and willing to help any way I can. Is there anything you need right now?
- I’m sorry for whatever challenges might lie ahead for you, but I’m here and
willing to help. Would it be ok if I call next week just to check in on you?
- Please accept my deepest condolences. I can’t imagine what you must be going
through right now, but I know enough about grief to know that it can be very challenging.
Don’t hesitate to call me if there’s anything I can do to help.
- I’m so sorry to hear about _____. I’m sure you’re going to miss him/her terribly. How are you holding up?
- I know there's nothing I can say right now to make things better, but I also know that having someone to talk to at times like this is really important, so don’t hesitate to call me whenever you need to.
One reason is that the phrases above easily open into longer conversations, while “I’m sorry for your loss” tends to shut them down. But in some cases it’s even appropriate to simply remain silent and offer them a deeply heartfelt hug instead. Most important of all is just being willing to listen and be present.
Be forewarned though: even if I’ve made the case that it’s time to consign this worn out relic to the dustbin, using the language of loss to talk about death and grieving is probably so entrenched that it will difficult to purge. I know it has been for me. That’s also how culture works, and while change of this sort might be slow as a result, the day is definitely coming when "I'm sorry for your loss" will be seen as emotional illiteracy rather than cultural fluency, or recognized as code for "I don't know what else to say and I don’t really want to get involved".
Beyond Clichés & Platitudes: New Communication Skills For Grief, Trauma & Divorce
is a special two hour training seminar was designed to relegate worn out clichés and platitudes to the dustbin, replacing them with a powerful new set of tools that will allow you to confidently provide more effective support to those who are going through tragedy. You'll learn the specifics of what to say and what not to say to the most important people in your life, at the most critical moments of theirs. Upgrading your communication skills in this area is guaranteed to be life changing both personally and professionally.
04/22/17 9 am - 11 am at First Friends Meeting, 2100 West Friendly Ave, Greensboro, NC
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