Grief Calls For More Than Clichés
The most obvious problem is simply overwhelming over use. Saying “I’m sorry for your loss” is a bit like saying “Have a nice day” to the cashier at the convenience store. If you don't have to think about it how sincere is the sentiment? Anyone who has ever stood in the receiving live at a memorial service has probably noticed, at least for that moment, the absurdity of hearing it repeated by almost every single person that goes by.
At best it starts to come across as meaningless and trite. At worst it's insincere, or code for "I don't know what else to say" or "I don't really want to get involved". Realizing the importance of what has happened, hopefully we would all want to say or do something more meaningful if we felt more competent.
Clarity Works Better Than Euphemism
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. Depending on your religious convictions you may not feel like you "lost" them at all.
Using the language of loss as a euphemism for death is one way in which our culture perpetuates the death phobia. 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 conveys pity with distancing (e.g. I’m sorry for your loss). Many experts in the field of grief care are starting to recommend using the language of suffering, healing and overcoming challenges instead.
It's The Wrong Mental Programming
The sheer frequency and repetition of the phrase begs us to question what the psychological consequences might be of choosing "loss" as the culturally endorsed message when speaking of death and grief: a cultural blindness that prevents us from seeing other perspectives.
"I'm sorry for your loss" refers to something that has diminished you, and in this context it's a permanent condition. It seems to refute the notion that death is part of the natural order, it's guaranteed to happen, and you might actually grow from it spiritually. Of course it makes your own death loom even darker as the time when you will also be lost.
Just saying "I'm so sorry" is far 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, everything can become a redemptive process. "I'm sorry if you're suffering right now, but I want you to know I'm here with you" is infinitely better on every level. It correctly identifies what I'm sorry for, using "if" to avoid assuming anything, indicates that what you may be experiencing isn't permanent, and it points to the path of healing: being deeply connected to others.
The Challenges Ahead
The challenge presented by grief is not how to lose our loved one and move on. The challenge is how to carry those cherished memories and regain our enthusiasm for life and start moving forward again, knowing as we now do something more profound about it's impermanence. What people with real expertise understand is that the willingness to listen and be present with grief is more important than knowing what to say.
Be forewarned: even if I've managed to totally convinced you that this worn out relic must be eliminated, using the language of loss to talk about death and grieving is probably so entrenched that you'll have a difficult time purging it. While cultural change of this sort might be slow, the day is coming when "I'm sorry for your loss" will be seen as emotional illiteracy rather than cultural fluency, and it will be considered code for "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