Like many of you, I was shocked to learn of the passing of Glee star Cory Monteith. My heart goes out to his friends, family, and his girlfriend, Lea Michele. His death came a few days before the anniversary of my late husband's passing and it reminded me things people had said in an effort to comfort me during this time. Some were anything but comforting.
I normally stick to the positive and avoid telling people what NOT to do. But today, I break my silence. Too many people are hurt by words that come with the best intentions. I know it's hard to know what to say, and I know how the pain is compounded when people inadvertently say something stupid.
Here's my list of what NOT to say to the those suffering unexpected loss:
1. "Everything happens for a reason."
DO NOT SAY THIS. EVER! It's the LAST thing a newly grieving person needs to hear. Don't get me wrong. I totally believe this. I live my life by it. But when unexpected tragedy strikes, I need to recalibrate. Reassess. Reset.
Not long after I started college, a high school friend's dad died suddenly. She was one of the most positive people I knew, with her whole life planned out perfectly. College. Marriage. Two kids. That girl had it down. I was in awe. So, I was shocked when I spoke to her right after she lost her dad. She told me she had always thought everything happened for a reason, but this loss proved her wrong. She went on to inform me she was quitting college (she had only enrolled to make her dad proud, anyway, so what was the point?), no longer did she want to marry (who would walk her down the aisle?) and having kids was out of the question (she didn't want to put anyone else through the pain of losing a parent).
I listened in silent shock.
Turns out, she decided to stay in school. She graduated, got married, and gave birth to two beautiful girls. That girl has it down.
Would it have helped if I had pushed the point of everything happening for a reason? Not an iota. She needed time to think and heal and decide for herself how she wanted to go on with her life.
2. "Time heals all wounds."
What a bunch of crapola! How much time exactly? Weeks? Months? Years? Decades? Centuries? It's been five years since I lost my lovely Ben and I still cry like a baby when the enormity of it hits me. (And it often hits when you least expect it.) The wound is opened afresh, and it feels like it happened yesterday.
Here's the thing: Time does not heal. I know, it's a big shocker given what we've been told. But here is the good news: Time changes things. Thinking back to my friend who lost her dad, over time she changed her mind about how she felt. She decided she did want to stay in college, get married, and have children. So she took action. Action keep you moving forward. And that can be very healing.
But taking action can take time.
3. "You're young. You'll find someone else."
Seriously? If you've ever said this to someone grieving the loss of their life partner, I urge you to get on the phone TODAY and apologize profusely for being so blasé. Ask your friend for forgiveness. Then forgive yourself and make a promise to NEVER say this again.
Why, you ask? Let me tell you my story. Here's the short version (you can read the long version in my book Keep Going: From Grief to Growth).
During a bad breakup with my boyfriend at the time, I met a boy. His name was Ben. We became friends. There was some kinda magic between us that I can't explain. I'd never felt so alive before. Others noticed it, too.
I took a chance and leapt into love. It felt great. And it kept getting better. Ben and I didn't believe in soulmates. Until we met each other. We'd periodically poke each other playfully and exclaim with disbelief : You are real! You're THE ONE!
Fast forward five years of marriage (eight years together) and tragedy strikes. Ben is gone. Forever.
Cue well-meaning friends and family that say: "You're young. You'll find someone else."
People are irreplaceable.
Yes, I did eventually open my heart to love again.
Not because someone told me I would. Because I was ready.
Not because I was "over it."
4. "Are you over it yet?"
I cannot tell you how many people have asked me this. The first one came a month after Ben's passing. ONE MONTH! One year later and more of the same started to roll in past people's well-meaning mouths to my enraged ears.
5. "It's been over a year."
One day a friend had asked the insensitive question, "Are you over it yet?"
"NO! I'm NOT!" I shouted in disbelief.
She shrugged, visibly annoyed by my inability to heal as quickly as she thought I should.
"Well," she responded, with an exasperated sigh and an air of boredom on the topic, "Not over it. But you have to be better by now. I mean, it's been over a year."
In truth, it was worse. Why? Because the shock had worn off and the fact that I had to rebuild my life, alone, was kicking in. Meanwhile, friends who thought I was over it were checking out of my life and moving on with their own.
Which brings me to what you SHOULD say to those in mourning.
It's simple and sweet.
At the time of Ben's passing, it had been almost two years since I had spoken to my mother. When we had been in touch, mom hadn't always said the things I wanted to hear. In fact, sometimes she said the complete opposite. (Perhaps you can relate?) Anyway, when someone told me she was on the line and passed me the phone, I braced myself for the worst, but felt too weak to defend myself against any unwanted words.
But, I needn't have worried. Because, in that moment, my mom, after about a 30-year run of saying the wrong thing, blew me away by saying what I so desperately needed to hear.
I love you.
And she kept saying it. Over and over. I love you.
It was heartfelt.
It was healing.
It was helpful when no other words came close.
So, to Lea Michele, and to everyone who has lost someone close to them, I know the pain is real. And I send you love. Lots and lots of love.
If you are grappling for the words to say to someone grieving, it's OK.
There are no words.
There is only love.
And love never dies.
Have you lost someone you love? What helped you heal? Please share below. I love you for taking the time to read this.