On Losing A Loved One And What Not To Say To Someone Who’s Grieving

When someone is grieving, you need only say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Don’t force a bereft person to parry your reactions, receive your advice, or sate your curiosity. Just sit quietly and listen.

On my kitchen counter sits his cast-iron teapot. The delicate, stemless wineglasses he brought over take up space in the cabinet. In my car, I keep the phone mount we used to navigate a two-day thousand-mile road trip to Montana and Canada. He drove off with his phone sitting on his truck’s bumper, left his Global Entry card in my glove compartment and neglected to retrieve his passport from the kiosk in the airport. Who knows where the 800 pairs of reading glasses went. He was always leaving things behind.

People want to instruct you how to experience grief. Well-intentioned friends have told me what to feel, what not to feel, and even that my feelings are wrong.

Here’s what I know. When someone is grieving, you need only say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Don’t force a bereft person to parry your reactions, receive your advice, or sate your curiosity. Just sit quietly and listen. Sit Shiva.

All the clichés come home to roost, the stale sentiments finding their marks like characters in a familiar play. There’s old Carpe Diem, lurking in the wings, who reminds that it could all be gone tomorrow, so buy the shoes today even if they’re not on sale. There’s What He Would Have Wanted, who took over as my fingers sent long over-sharing emails to strangers who also loved him. Always standing center stage is But Wait, There’s More – the trips I’d been planning for us in my head, the gifts I’d not yet given him.

Also present: No, Really, I’m Fine, straight-backed and stoic, dogged by Are You Actually Talking to Me About Something So Trivial? In the coming months, I know I will wish for The Black Arm Band. Everyone else moves on, forgetting that some of us will be long stuck in this emotional muck. At Least He Didn’t Suffer makes a brief appearance, as does He Was Fortunate to Be Spared More Trump.

Most useful might be You Jerk. Getting angry at the dead guy provides fleeting respite here in Griefland.

Sadness and suffering are not meant to be compared and rated on some Richter scale of pain. But when friends console me, I want to qualify that my loss is not the greatest. How much more tragic this is for the four kids now without a loving and adventuring dad. Worse, perhaps, for his 85-year old father. We grow up knowing we will eventually lose our parents. The other way around – that’s against the natural order, the most terrible thing.

My sadness is alloyed with guilt over things I didn’t say to him and regret about some of what I did. Our relationship was complicated and undefinable and far from finished. He was easy to like and hard to love. I loved him, but he drove me nuts. Hopeful and patient, he was waiting for me to come around.

He neither gave nor received compliments. He was polite, though sometimes hurtfully blunt. He used words to mean what he thought they should mean, and often his definitions were only adjacent to the ones the rest of us had agreed on. His language was elliptical, and his intellectual leaps Olympian.

He never used the word “teased” without pairing it with “merciless.” It was easy to see the boy he’d been in the man he’d become: someone who got passionately interested in things and wanted to report on what he’d learned. He asserted his knowledge with certainty, and like most humans and some horses, he bridled at correction.

He could be stern and brusque, though never with me. With me, he twinkled. With his kids, he was tender, tolerant. For his fractious siblings, he was balm and he was glue. Hearing someone else’s hurt affected him viscerally – you could hear the wound in his voice, see the ache on his quivering lip.

He asked few questions, but observed with acuity. His hugs crushed every rib. An intrepid epicure, he came to appreciate my Cheez-Its and warm diet root beer. When he liked something, he bought multiples and gave away the extras.

He stood so straight — made himself as tall as he could – I became conscious of my own hunching. The size of the sports coats he always wore seemed aspirational. He knew he was vain, but I don’t know if he knew he was beautiful. It was hard to tell him things that would make him feel good. He focused on the negative, perseverated and worried, replayed perceived slights and criticisms.

He was without guile. He told everybody everything, way too much. He was often lost, yet he served as a moral compass for those around him.

He embraced missions. When my luggage spent the first four days of our trip to Italy at the Charles de Gaulle airport, he taught me to treat it as an adventure. A chance to buy new underwear! A way to find out that Italian farmacia’s sell Ambien over the counter. His goal, he said before we left for Tuscany, was to make me happy (he loved a challenge). I know I told him how well he had succeeded; I can only hope that he heard.

He was always leaving things behind. I never thought I would be among them.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.

This originally appeared on The Spokesman Review. Republished here with permission.