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When You Don’t Know What to Say

As many of you probably know since I’ve mentioned being away from the online community for a bit, last week my wife’s dad passed away, just 5 weeks after her mom had. Obviously, the grieving process for us is still very much ongoing, and will be for quite some time.. But one thing that has seemed familiar to me is the number of people who simply don’t know what to say, or how to respond.

First, I get it. This sucks. There are no words that are going to make it not suck. But, social convention being what it is, you have to say something, even if it’s just “I’m sorry for your loss”, which really, just doesn’t seem like enough, does it?

Then again, maybe it is. Because apparently, trying to fill in the blank after that can lead to some awkward statements, and saying things that could easily be taken the wrong way.

Now, my familiarity with this phenomenon was not a result of my past experiences with funerals, but as a survivor of child abuse, and a former mental health patient, that feeling of not knowing what to say, but feeling like you have to say something, was definitely something I’ve seen before. I can still clearly remember the awkward things people said to me when they learned about my childhood. Somehow, “I’m sorry that happened to you” didn’t seem like enough, and so there were a lot of awkward words spoken, some of which were well-meaning, but fell quite short of being supportive.

Because, much like last week, when faced with news that they weren’t quite sure how to respond to, people couldn’t resist the urge to say “something”, despite the fact that really, all I needed were the same things we need in response to current events:

I’m sorry. 

I’m thinking of you/praying for you

We love you

We are here with you. 

Look, there were people who did things for us. Brought food, helped take care of details, covered for us at the office, etc. If you are in a situation where someone is grieving, dealing with a mental health issue, or getting help for an abusive childhood, and you have the opportunity to do something for them, absolutely, do it. It is appreciated in ways that will never be put into words, but just know that it is.

But if you’re not in a situation where that is needed, or available, those statements above are enough for now.

When someone discloses abuse to you, or discloses their mental health issue to you, they are not asking you to fix it for them. They are not seeking out the magic words that you can say that will make them feel better about what happened. It doesn’t work that way. Just be there. Let them know you care about them and support them. Ask them what they need. Most of all, don’t panic. Just be with them, and exist with their story.

If you want to get angry about it, do that later. It’s not time for that.

On the flip side, if you are the one disclosing, cut people some slack. Show a little graciousness and understanding. It is hard to hear that someone you care about is suffering, and it’s hard when you first learn about it to know what to say. Some of your biggest supporters might just say some fairly awkward things to you. Be patient with them, understand the all too common need to say “something” in the face of such news, even if it’s not always very well thought-out. I’m not saying you have to let people do and say anything, but let’s understand that this news is likely to be upsetting, and people will react in different ways. Sometimes, saying something awkward is really just them coming to grips with it themselves.

Or, as my father in law said after the funeral for his wife. (I’m paraphrasing here) They are coming to talk to you just as much for themselves and their grief as for yours.

I think that’s a really good way to look at that initial interaction. Other people need to process their reaction too. As much as we want them all to be magnificently prepared to say and do the right thing, and we appreciate the heck out of those who do, we need to allow that not everyone will be so perfect.

That’s OK. At first.

The most important thing, is that you both understand that this is going to take some time. That initial disclosure is just that, the initial step you will take together. Hopefully, you’ll both be able to continue on that path together, as allies. As supporters and a source of encouragement. But you can’t do that if you don’t communicate about the best ways to support you, and forgive when someone tries but maybe falls a little short.

No one is perfect after all, and the last thing a survivor needs is to be limited to getting support from no one.

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