What to say when someone dies

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No one really knows what to say to someone when their loved one dies.  You can say, “You’re in my thoughts and prayers,” and maybe that’s true.  Maybe you actually know what to think or pray on that person’s behalf.  Personally, I’m never sure. 

You can tell them that you’ll be there for them—that you’re their middle-of-the-night-phone-call friend, and promise to sleep with the phone near your bed.  You can write them a With Sympathy card and let Hallmark say something in lofty cursive and sign your name with love.  Or make a digital card with organ music to have a more flashy effect.  You can go to the funeral and wake and talk about all the good memories of their loved one, memorialize them with a slide show, give a toast, even ease the pain with some good jokes. 

You can bring them soup.  Bone soup, if you’ve been there.  If you know how hard it is to eat when you are in emotional triage.  It gets physical fast.  And every bite needs to hold health.

You can use social media to show support, post by post.  But do you “Like” an announcement of death?  Do you “Share” it?  Do you “Comment?”  It’s all a way of observing your friend’s loss.  But in the same place you share about what you ate for breakfast? 

You can give them books:  A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, in which the minister rages against the loss of his beloved wife, himself, his God, and Who Dies, by Stephen Levine, especially Chapter 8, where he goes deeply into Grief as an ultimate vehicle of liberation, saying, “We are dropped into the very pit of despair and longing…an initiation often encountered along the fierce journey toward freedom, spoken of in the biographies of many saints and sages.”  But most people are not open to that journey in the first place, and certainly not when their hearts are shattered into splintered shards.

The truth is, and it hurts in the worst way…that ultimately, the mourner will be alone in their grief, and who wants to say that?  Who wants to bear the news that soon…people will stop Thinking, and Praying, and Liking, and Sharing, and Commenting, and bringing soup, and sending cards and emails and books.  Even the phone calls and texts will fall away.  The unspoken reality is:  People go back to their lives and you are alone.  You are in a club that you never wanted to be in.  And that’s when you watch Renee Fleming singing “Walk On” over and over on youtube as loud as you can.  And eventually…you do.  You absorb the grief.  And you start to see the “golden sky” she’s singing about.  But you never get over your loss.  Never.222

There is the opportunity, however, to use it.  If you’re in the club, you might as well be a steady and gracious club member.  I’m in the club.  And recently, one of my dear friend’s beloved husband dropped dead out of nowhere.  She’d lost her grandparents in their old age.  No one else.  She was bereft.  She asked me to write her a list of things that would help her, based on a phone call we’d shared.  Her mind was in a triage fog, my words were helpful to her, and she wanted to remember them. 

Here is what I wrote.  I offer it to you, if you are a new member of this club.  You are not alone.  And I offer it to you if you are one of those people wondering what to Think, Pray, Say…do: 

Hello, beautiful.  I am thinking of you non-stop.  Thank you for calling on me to be in your circle at this impossible time.  I am not afraid of this, so I’m glad you called me in.  I will be there for you.  The books you asked for should be there by the end of the week.  I will write some of the points I made on the phone here, since you asked for them.  If my words on the phone were helpful, it’s only because you are open to them.  I truly hope they help.  Here is what has helped me and some of the people I know who have been through deep loss: 

  • First of all:  Breathe.  I mean it.  That’s your most important tool to stay in the present, out of fear, and to sustain yourself.  You will find yourself holding your breath.  Try to stay aware of your breath no matter what and keep breathing…in…out…in…out.  Deeply if you can.  Little sips when deep is too hard.
  • Lean into Love.  Wherever you can find it.  In your God.  In friends and family.  In yourself.  Let it hold you for now.  Call on friends and family to give you what you need.  You cannot offend anyone right now.  Let us know what you need and tell us how to give it to you.  “Bring me dinner, please.  Come sit with me.  Read to me.  Sing to me.  Rub my back.  Draw me a bath…” 
  • That said, be careful who you bring into your circle.  Stay away from people who say things like, “He’s in a better place,” or “Everything happens for a reason.”  They’re trying to help, and maybe those things are true, but right now you need people who are not afraid to hold the space for your pain.  You need to find the people who feel easy and safe and not necessarily wise.  Keep your circle small for now.  It might be that you call on people very different from the ones you habitually have in your life.
  • Make sure to eat.  Even if you want to throw up.  Please, eat.  And drink a lot of water.  You don’t want to block your natural energy flow.  Your body actually knows how to handle this immense pain.
  • Lie in bed with your feet up. 
  • Take a walk if you can, every day.  Even if it’s short.  Just get outside.
  • Take Epsom Salt baths.  Lavender oil helps.  Keep some in your purse, put a few drops on your palm, rub your hands together, then cup your hands to your nose and breathe deeply when you need grounding.
  • Write.  If you can.  Just a little bit.  If you have it in you, at some point sooner than later, it’s incredibly useful to write down your vision of what was “supposed to be.”  I heard those words come from your deepest place of sacred rage and I believe that to write that story, as fully fleshed out as possible, would be an important step in one day sending off that “supposed to be” into the sea of surrender.  So that you don’t have to hold it anymore and you can live into your future.  Letting the supposed-to-be go doesn’t mean that you do it injustice or that it no longer exists in dreams and heart.  But it’s important not to have it become armor of some sort.  It’s not time now to surrender it.  But I do believe that it would be helpful just to write it out with great details as a way to honor it.  And one day…yes, to let it go.  Writing is the most transformational and therapeutic tool I know and I think it should be up there with diet and exercise in the realm of wellness.  Keep a journal by your bed.  It helps.
  • When the terrifying, claustrophobic, impossible thoughts come, do not let them multiply.  Literally put up a wall that keeps them on the other side.  They are not your friend.  There is no making sense of this loss.  Unless your thoughts are loving and forgiving and helpful, banish them.  If you have to shout “NO!” then do it.  What you let into your mind should feel and act like the very best friends and family who would never let you entertain fear, but only shower you with love.  Love yourself.  There is no thinking your way through this.  This is a time to really find what it is to just…be.  Breathe.  Breathe.  Breathe.  In out in out.
  • There is no check list right now.  There is nowhere to get.  There is no goal other than to fully live in the present moment.  You can’t skip steps with triage, grief, or healing.  Grief attacks at will, it seems.  Be gentle with yourself if you feel graceless around it.  You have to feel it to shed it.
  • Go slowly.  Be careful.  The only real wisdom I have gleaned from Grief is this:  Grief is one of our greatest teachers because it doesn’t allow for hiding places.  When we open to our sorrow, we find truth.   Your tears then, are truth.  Honor them.

That’s enough for now.  The main thing is to be gentle with yourself.  I love you so.  And the love you two shared will never ever go away.  He is Love now and he is all around you and in you.  If you can’t feel him, feel Love and you will be feeling him.

Hope that helps.  You can do this.  I am here for you.  I promise.  If only just to listen to your tears and let you know you are not alone.

Love, 

Laura

In honor of Dr. Nick Gonzalez 

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28 Comments

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28 Responses to What to say when someone dies

  1. Carolyn Howard

    great stuff, Laura. Just lost my sister Wed night and have been so fortunate to have friends in the circle. Your advice is spot on! Xoxo

  2. margot

    so beautiful laura!

  3. Mary Beth

    Nick and I love you Laura. Thank you.

    • breta

      Dr. Gonzalez treated my mother’s cancer for 11 years and gave her many more healthy and happy years than she would have had, had she not found him. He was truly a remarkable man and I was stunned to learn of his passing.

  4. Kathy

    A stunningly beautiful commentary on the reality of loss and grief. My advice is the same……be gentle with yourself.

  5. Emily

    Beautifully said…I too am in this club and finding that circle is key. Your friend is so fortunate to have you be there for her and truly mean what you wrote. Your genuine caring and concern is a gift to all who can call you “friend.” :)

  6. Beautiful, I am so sorry that there was cause to write it. My dearest childhood friend lost her four year old to cancer and often shares quotes from CS Lewis.

    I will keep your words, for myself and for others.

    Thank you.

  7. Jan Myhre

    No one knew what to say to me when my dad died. I grieved for him an inordinate length of time. He was my hero, my pal, my knight in shining armor. The missing of him began to wane about five years ago (he died in ’86). I’ll take your words to my heart and perhaps the loss of him will continue to lessen with your help. Bless you for your kindness to your friend and thank you for your wisdom for all who grieve.

  8. This was incredibly timely – - one of my ‘cybersisters’ (we are group of working moms who have been online support for each other for almost 18 years) lost her 24 year old son. I have shared it with her . . . she is in a club that no one wants to join. We will walk beside her, but none of us know her pain. Thank you for writing such beautiful words.

  9. dixie

    Sometimes…no matter what you say or do to try and comfort someone going through a loss will be the wrong thing, or taken the wrong way…and that’s when “don’t take it personally” is crucial, along with “letting it be”. People loose perspective when they’re in that much pain…just know that you did or said what you did out of love and in the end, that’s all that you can try to do in the best way you know how. And keep on loving them. No matter what.

  10. Alice

    I am a retired clergy woman. Wow! I wish I had your thoughts to share with so many persons who said good by to their loved one for the last time. All you said is so simple, yet so profound. The piece I liked the piece was telling friends exactly what you need and ask them when and what you need. I like the image of “the club”. I am also a member of this club. I never gave myself permission to ask of others when I needed it the most. It was and is my loss.

  11. Alice Riemer-Mckee

    I am a retired clergy woman. How much I had your words to share with so many who had just said good bye to a loved one for the last time. So simple–so helpful–so profound.
    I love the imagine of “the club.” I am a member of that club. If only I had asked friends and others what I needed and when I needed it. It would have been so healing for me. Tried to go it by myself so many times and still am.

  12. beautifully written Laura. i’m sure this will be helpful to many who are grieving or trying to help a friend in need. xoxo

  13. So beautifully written. I have two friends who have lost people they love very much. I want to still offer them support but like so many others I have no idea what to say or do since I have never been part of that group. Even though years may have gone by now, I still see them suffering and often hear their pain when they post on social media. I may still say the wrong things at times and I hope they forgive me for that, but at least now I have some sort of reference and more than a few inspirational thoughts that you have so graciously shared. I especially like the idea of writing about what was supposed to be so that you can eventually surrender it in time. Thank you for sharing this, it is a sensitive subject and your advice will help countless people.

  14. Kelly

    Wow im going to share this with mom . Just talked to her On the 5th anniversary of her husbands death ( my step fathers) . You are wise beyond your years my dear and never cease to amaze me with your way with words!

  15. Linda Mc Enery

    Laura I am Kelly Dwyer Brown’s Mom and yesterday was five years since I lost my husband and Kelly lovingly sent me your message “What to say when someone dies.” It was beautiful and so poignant. I still grieve but have gone forward to enjoy my daughters and grandchildren by continually visiting them. I also found that being active physically and mentally helps greatly. Life is beautiful and I cherish each day.

  16. Noha Al-Kadhi

    I loved this Laura. There were moments where I only wanted someone to “listen to my tears”… Thank you for these beautifully expressed words. xoxo

  17. Pattie

    Thank you for writing this. My husband just passed and this year was supposed to be our year. With the kids well into their lives and business taken to a place that we could finally relax. We had such great plans for this year. I will take your advice and write about what was supposed to be so that at some point I can let it go.

    I also find myself not able to breathe. It hurts so deeply that I just take those small sips of air. I will try to remember to breathe deeply.

    Thanks again.

  18. Pattie…small sips of air are sometimes all we have. I hope that you can do something in this year that feels gentle and loving. Writing is the best way I know to process grief. If you really do love to write, I lead writing retreats and many people who come, are in grief. Email me if you want to know more: Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com. For now, I’m sending Montana ozone to you.

  19. Lorraine

    Thank you! I lost my daughter a year ago to a drug overdose and still in pain. You are right . No one talks about it or asks me how I am. It’s like they avoid me or the situation
    Lorraine

    • Thank you for sharing, Lorraine. I hope you can find a way to use writing to help! Many of my Haven Writing Retreat alums have gone through similar pain, and come to Montana to start to heal…

  20. My 21year-old daughter died in a moped accident in austin in April. Your words are true and they are healing. Thank you.

    • Oh, Sherry…I’m glad that some words that I put together in my little office in Montana can help with such tragic loss. I hope you have some sort of writing practice. It helps! My retreats do too, if you want to come out to Montana and be in a loving, healing, community…

  21. Ann

    I know and I have known this pain for what will be 5 years come November.

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