What To Say When You Don’t Know What To Say.

by Lori Dwyer on October 2, 2012 · 15 comments

He looks at me. He says, “I was lost in the dark and you found me. I was hot—so
you gave me ice.”
 Lisey’s Story, Stephen King.

A comment on a post published a few weeks ago now…

“I would love it if you would turn this “platitudes” idea around and write on how to properly deal with people, like yourself, who are experiencing the extreme emotions surrounding devastating loss and long term grief. What is the best way to walk up to the raging fury of despair and provide true comfort in the absence of empathy. I have tried my best to find something not-annoying to say. So far the best thing I can come up with is “My heart weeps for your pain.” But maybe the best thing to say is “Can I pick your kids up for a playdate this week?”

Is suffering a prerequisite to understanding suffering? Can I be of any service to my suffering friend unless I share her particular pain? If anyone has insight on this issue, its probably you.

BTW, I have always wondered — why jellybeans? Is it an Aussie thing?”

Thanks for asking, Cynthia.

First things first…. I wish I had a better answer that what I about to give you.

I’ve touched on this one briefly before– the best help I was given in the long, soul–flailing months after Tony died came unbidden. I had literally a hundred people tell me to call them if I needed anything, anything at all… the problem was, I didn’t even know what to ask for.

Imagine if, suddenly, the emotional guidelines of your life crumple, leaving you shell shocked to even cry, standing in the middle of the wreckage of who you used to be….

The big wide world only cares to a certain extent. While you fall apart on the inside, the basic premises and faculties of civilized society must continue.

There still needs to be food in the cupboards. The house still has to be cleaned, washing done, lawns mowed. And children still need to play– more than anything else, children still need to play.

Life must go on. But while you’re still surveying the rubble, listening with a stethoscope for pieces of your soul that may have survived; all those details become an impossibility. Details, details, details… annoying craws that catch in your temples like headaches and disrupt the very process of surviving.

In that situation– any situation where life as someone knows it has fallen apart and left a bare skeleton of stark reality behind– it’s always practical help, practical kindness, that is the most useful and that the recipient will remember long after a million offers of lip service have faded. I was extremely blessed– people like FaerieSaerie, the Pixie, the Bear and the Kitten were like angels who simply came in and did what they saw they could do, what was needed…. the simple things I just could not.

And if in doubt, always offer. Always. It’s better to offer something, to say something, than to say nothing at all. The silence once the sympathy wears off and people stop saying “I’m sorry” is nearly impossible to stand.


The words “I’m sorry” are sneaky and slippery and you find yourself saying “I’m so sorry, I’m just so sorry…” to someone deep in grief even when you know you shouldn’t, even when you know that’s the last thing they want to hear.

I know that’s how they are, those ‘I’m sorry’ words, because I find myself saying them sometimes, wishing I could catch the thread of them and spool them back into my mouth even as they’re leaving the tip of my tongue.

It’s just what you say when confronted– and it’s always confronting, real grief is never pleasant– with someone in mourning. Every movie you’ve ever watched tells you so, tells you that this is the social norm and the respectful thing to be done.

By the end of the long, hot Friday when I buried the man I loved every “I’m sorry” felt like another sun warmed stone of hardened lava cracking into my legs, my shins, my thighs, my arms tied high on a stake of a pain and unable to deflect the bone splintering blows.

I’ve gotten better at defending my flesh. I’ve heard and tested every possible response from “What for, you didn’t do anything” to You’re not nearly as sorry as I am“. These days I respond to every well meant “I’m sorry” with a small sad smile and the slightest shrug of my shoulders and reply softly “Can’t be helped….”

Years ago when I was studying to be a social worker, I vaguely remember attending a class given by a midwife that looked at the possible roles of a social worker after a birth. She handed a photocopy of a photo around the class, a family of three in greyscale passed from hand to hand. A father and mother cradling a tiny, perfect baby… a baby born perfectly still. “Now, what would be the first thing you’d say as a social worker, walking in to this situation just hours after a still birth?”

‘I’m sorry’, I thought– it was all I could think, young and blissfully untouched by death. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry…’

“Well” spoke up another student, older than most of us, returning to study after her own children had grown, “you’d say ‘What a beautiful baby.’

“Exactly” smiles our teacher for that day “They’ve heard everyone say how sorry they are, how awful it is… by now they probably need that acknowledgement that their baby is just as gorgeous as any other….”

That stuck with me for years afterward, a clear bell strike on a cloudless day. The simple power in it, in not dipping to the pain of death but basking, just for a moment, in the simple joy of life– in the beauty of a power, however still they may be… in the eyes of their parents, they are the most perfect baby ever created.

It’s not an easy thing to do, to stem the flow of apologies for something you had no part in. It’s something we’re trained in even as children– saying sorry makes it better, saying sorry makes it OK.

The adult truth is that is some situations nothing makes it OK. There is not a single thing you can as to make things better.

So don’t try.

Just be honest.

Nobody ever means it when they say “I’m sorry” to someone who’s grieving someone they loved. They might say “I’m so sorry for your loss” and you know what? That’s an OK thing to say. Because they are. It it still sounds stuffy and rehearsed and like a cop out in the face of the raw emotion the person in pain is dealing with.

So say something you mean. Say “I’m so sorry you’re hurting, it hurts to see it.” Say “I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now.” Say “This isn’t fair” or “This is fucked” or “I hate that this is happening to you.”

Say “What a beautiful baby.” Or “He was an awesome person and I’ll miss him.” Or “He loved you very much.”

And if things are falling to pieces for someone and they keep going wrong, it’s OK to say “This is shit and I’ve got nothing for you. But please know that I know your pain.” Because really, when someone says something like “It will all work out of the best” or “Sometimes things happen for a reason”; most of the time what they mean is “Life sucks but I’m here for you.”

And failing all that, open you arms in offer of a hug and say “I don’t know what to say”… because sometimes that’s just the simple truth.

Because even the simple fact of saying “I don’t know what to say” is better than saying nothing at all. As I said, the silence of a thousand uncomfortable people…. it’s deafening.

*Part two of Cynthia’s question- the jellybean bit- coming soon.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Rachel October 6, 2012 at 1:32 am

Thank you so, so, so much for this. I've been to 8 funerals in the past 3 years (6 of them with my children), and I often find myself not knowing what to say to the bereaved. Saying I'm sorry feels so trite, but I need to say something. Thank you for giving me more words.


Shoshana October 5, 2012 at 12:46 pm

One of the really good things about the Jewish practice of shiva after a death (the closest relatives sit for 7 days with friends and relatives coming to keep them company) is that the etiquette / religious rules of the situation is that the bereaved gets to lead. One comes in quietly sits down and doesn't speak until spoken to. If the bereaved wants to share funny stories, you share funny stories, if the bereaved wants to sit quietly, you sit quietly.


Susie Newday October 3, 2012 at 2:34 am

So many people have a hard time finding the right words to say, even someone like me who sadly gets to see so much pain.

This is something I had written about never really being able to understand someone else's pain.


There was also a comment that really stock with me about not comparing your pain to someone else's.


Katie Paul October 2, 2012 at 10:41 pm

You mentioned my personal favourite — "This is fucked" … Indeed.


Anonymous October 2, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Beautifully put as always Lori. I always feel like you say exactly what my soul was trying to say but couldn't find the words.

One thing…..
In response to an earlier comment,I often hear people compare grief. I honestly don't think you can. Ever. Not everyone has the same things to lose. Pain is pain.

Just like no one can tell anyone how or when to grieve, no one can tell anyone what they are "allowed" to grieve for or how much they are allowed to feel it.

By the twist of a life I never chose, I have not had the privilege of having children, so for me, my dog, who is old & sick and has been my best friend & the only one to share my home with me for 16 years, is a LOT to lose.

I don't mean to minimize or disregard anyone's pain or right to feel. It would be nice if the world didn't judge my pain & worry or right to feel it either. They have not lived my life…….

Jen xx


Marie October 2, 2012 at 5:45 pm

I just started reading your blog and have been catching up the last few days on some of your older posts. This post is so true, I stopped saying I'm sorry after a friend lost her father and said the I'm sorries drove her nuts, because as you said, why say sorry when you didn't do anything. Of course, sorry doesn't always mean I apologise, it can mean I'm sorry to hear that but I stopped saying it. But then it leaves you in the awkward position of what is the right thing to say? I think I lean towards "oh no that's awful." Is there a right thing to say?


enlightned-one October 2, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Love and mung beans


Bronnie Marquardt October 2, 2012 at 3:58 pm

So true. Particularly the practical stuff. Say it, mean it, and sometimes you have to just go in and do it because the bereaved person doesn't know how to ask or hasn't even noticed it needs to be done. I am always inspired by the way you've coped and the way your friends have helped you Lori


Rachel October 2, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Or as someone commented on your blog in the way-back-when-right-after-the-After "This is some seriously fucked up shit".
I never forgot that one!
Big love Pix xxx


deardarl October 2, 2012 at 3:24 pm

I'm all good with the "I'm sorry" comments myself.
I hate the advice of the "you should" people… "so and so put herself on match.com and found a new man in a month – you should do that".
…..and the thing I'm finding that I really hate NOW??? The people who swore they'd "do anything, just ask" when he died …. and now if I ask I just hear crickets (and its a rare thing for me to actually ask anyway).
I cracked the shits and wrote a post about some of the comments I got recently here: http://widowsvoice-sslf.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/misconceptions-from-ill-informed.html
…and when I look back at what I wrote about practical help just after he died, I think it still rings true(here: http://corymbia.wordpress.com/2010/08/14/helping-a-bereaved-person-101/)


Catherine Rodie Blagg (Cup of Tea and a Blog) October 2, 2012 at 3:10 pm

I often find myself saying "I'm sorry, I just don't know what to say" and I feel like an idiot, but I know its better than silence. When I lost my dad I was shocked by the way people avoided me, it wasn't their fault, they were paralysed by the fear of saying the wrong thing and instead said nothing. My best friends sat with me in silence while I cried. Sometimes you just need to physically be there.


mamamandy.com October 2, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Wow. I will never forget that perfect answer for the perfectly still baby. Rocked me to the core, that one.


Anonymous October 2, 2012 at 11:12 am

I believe that experiencing suffering does give you an insight into someone elses suffering to a certain extent.

In my situation, (having had a family member take their own life) I feel I've got a better understanding of grief (whereas I had none before), especially when it is as a result of suicide.

However, I've been through this from my perspective only, and I think when people are grieving, the experiences of others aren't necessary helpful anyway, because grief is so, so personal.

It is hard to know what to say though. I had so many people say things that were really unhelpful and try to give me advice (or say that they understood and they were so sad when their grandparents died of old age or their dog died etc). Although I knew they were trying to help, I just wanted to shout "No! You have no idea!!". But as you say, silence is also deafening. It's so tricky.

I also agree with you, Lori that practical help cannot be underestimated. Food (especially food that can be frozen and reheated) is always appreciated, as is having someone to deal with everyday stuff like bills, and make eveyday decisions (For me, I was completely unable to cope with any of that)


Kelloggs Ville October 2, 2012 at 8:26 am

That was really helpful. And I'm sorry for the number of times I must have said 'I'm sorry'


Caroline October 2, 2012 at 8:05 am

I love how you write, Lori. Xxx


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