The Two Words You Should Never Say To Someone Who Is Grieving
Slowly, subtly, so gradually at first that we barely noticed, my dad began wasting away.
One sunny January morning I noticed he was wearing the shorts I bought him for Christmas; his once-thick thighs, shaped and plumped through decades of playing team sports, were swamped in fabric. His gaze caught mine and he grinned.
“Looking at my chicken legs, Tups?” Tuppence; dad’s nickname for me, since I was a toddler. “I’m still a razor-sharp athlete!”
I grinned back; hid my concern. But I made a mental note to chat to mum about dad’s weight loss. He’d beaten bowel cancer a decade earlier, and now we were always on the lookout for red flags. A few kilos lost turned into a 10kg shed, then he was down 15kg in a matter of months -- a massive red flag.
Soon, we had confirmation that the cancer was back.
Over four years, the padding around dad’s six-foot frame plummeted from 95kg to just 53kg.
And when he finally succumbed to the disease that had slowly robbed him of his vitality; when his body was so riddled with tumours he could barely move his head, let alone lift a limb; when his final moments on this earth finally arrived; when he died, it was surreal.
I can only recall it through a hazy lens, with just a few moments coming into clear focus:
My mum, red-eyed, sobbing, standing next to his hospital bed where he lay still.
My brother a little while later, perched on a cushion on the floor, in the front room of dad’s hospice, after our family spilled onto all of the chairs.
A soft-bodied, gentle nurse leaning in for a hug, and whispering, “At least he’s not in pain any more.”
This was true. He was no longer tethered to an agonising body that barely functioned. And she meant well, so I accepted her caring gesture with the intention with which it was delivered.
But the truth is, her comment was burdensome.
'At least'. What a wretched pairing of words, dished out so lovingly by compassionate people, who have the purest of intentions in offering comfort.
I just wanted to be mad and devastated that my dad was dead. Instead, I was being low-key encouraged to look for some sort of upside -- to feel grateful that he was no longer in pain. Couldn’t I live in this fury for just a little while?
In a society that promotes toxic positivity, we’re not culturally wired to process the grimmer aspects of life and death. Grief is the result of something completely brutal happening: a death, a loss, a divorce, an ending. When faced with someone in the midst of an emotional crisis like this, it's hard to acknowledge and process that chasm of difficult feelings -- but we want to offer support. So, we instinctively try to cheer up the bereaved.
It’s well meaning, but problematic.
When my dad died, I heard variations of: At least he had a long life. At least he’s not in pain any more. At least you got to say your goodbyes. At least you had quality time together.
None of these things mattered to me. My dad had died. I was devastated. The end.
When I was pregnant and lost the baby almost 10 weeks into my pregnancy, my beautiful friends and family swarmed in to offer comfort. And I heard variations of:
At least you can try again. Like a petulant child, I wanted to reply: I don’t want to try again. I want this baby. This unique soul.
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At least you have other healthy children. Yes I do… and they were so excited to get a sibling.
At least you don’t have to suffer through sleepless nights with a newborn. No… but I so wanted to.
I didn’t say any of these things, of course. I was appropriately polite. I wore my bravest face, smiled and thanked them, then tucked my grief away into pockets I could access later, when I was alone.
We each carry around our own buttons of grief; some heavy and dark, others feather-light, but still felt. We grieve and experience loss in so many ways beyond death: we feel it when there is loss or change in relationships, careers, in our childhoods, and as parents. It is a universal experience, something from which no one is exempt. Yet for some reason, we still don’t know how to talk to each other in grief.
A good place to start? Avoid ‘at least’ when comforting the bereaved. If you’re unsure what to do or say, consider: “I’m so sorry to hear about this/your loved one/your experience. Can I drop off some dinner/swing by for a coffee and a chat/take care of any errands for you?”
Don’t search for platitudes or positives, and know that it’s not your job to take away your loved one’s pain. Instead, we can sit with them in it -- it’s the least we can do.