The Secret Life of Adults (and other kids)-The “right thing” if someone dies

Secret Guide to Adults (& Kids). What to say when someone you care about loses somebody.

[This article is part of a series where we reveal stuff that adults or kids don’t usually admit to each other.  Mostly it’s me fessing up to my secret thoughts or stuff I’ve done that maybe I shouldn’t have.]

One of the people at the store just lost their Dad, and my heart is kinda breaking for them as I write this.  I’m (like everyone else around him and his family) trying to figure out what the “right” thing is to say. And I want let him know that there are tons of ways that are normal to react to this, that there is no “right” way for him to feel, that whatever he’s feeling, it really is ok.  The truth is that everybody has a hard time figuring this out.

It feels like you should know the right thing to say or do when you find out about a loss that is just to big too imagine. If is a friend or someone we love, we tend fall back on “I’m so sorry for your loss” and “Is there anything I can do”.  And if it is you, you accept those words in a blur, unable to believe that the rest of the world is still going on as usual when everything has just completely changed.  Trying to figure out the right thing to do or feel makes a really tough time, much tougher.

If you are going through this, and this is intended for our friend, this stuff comes at you as it comes, and it’s all ok. All the cliche stuff has some basis in truth, but the order of what you are going through, and when or if you go through it is different for each person.

  • For some people, it hits them like a hammer to the gut right away.
  • For others, they feel bad that they don’t feel “enough” at the beginning.
  • Some people reach out to their friends and loved ones for support, others don’t want to talk about it.
  • Some take great comfort from the people who reach out, others snap back at them, because how can they understand?
  • Some put on a brave face to show that they are ok, and that no one needs to worry about them.
  • Some focus all their attention of taking care of the others in their family who are hurt.
  • Some just put all the feelings away to deal with later
  • Some just cry until they can’t cry anymore
  • Some write or draw or do anything else they can to either process or distract themselves
  • And a thousand other things…

First off, if you think it isn’t fair, that’s true, and it sucks.  There is sadness that can feel like it will never end, there is anger that can roil inside, hungering for the target that can’t be punched or screamed at, or made to pay for the injustice of it all.  And there is trying to be there for the others in your life, trying to be good, to show that you are ok and they don’t have to worry about you.  There are times when you just want to talk about it, and times where you just want to feel normal and ok for a bit (and guilty for wanting to feel that way).  And there is trying to take care of the other people in your life.  Everybody has lost someone, a parent, a spouse, a child. (The one thing I will say about this is you don’t have to be strong for the other person, or not talk about the loss because you don’t want them to be upset again.  Of course they are upset, and of course you are.  It’s ok to feel that together.  The sadness will be there, as will the anger and irritation and all the rest.  It needs a chance to be there, and the more you stuff it down, the longer it will take to come out. There is more comfort in sharing it then in standing strong for each other.  Parents worry less when they know you are facing your feelings, and it will do them good to know that being sad around you won’t hurt you.)

There here are those around you, who you know mean well, but who are clearly uncomfortable, not really knowing what to say. (Really, I’m just guessing what the right thing to say is as well.   Each of us have their own experience and feelings, so coming up with one thing to say or offer makes me as afraid that I’ll say the wrong thing as anybody else.)  The only thing I can offer is this.  My grandfather was super important to me, and when he died, I was intensely sad.  And I felt guilty when the sadness started to fade after a while.  But what I found was that after the sadness faded, (and man will this sound cliche….but all I can say is that it is utterly true), that he was still in there.  That when I would do things that I knew he would have feelings about, or that felt like the part of me that was formed by him, that I could hear his voice in my head, and feel his hand on my shoulder.   It has been 30 years and he is still there, and now thinking about him makes me have a small smile inside.  Don’t worry about doing any of this the right way, there is no such thing, there is just what you are going through.

For those who are trying to be there, there are a few things to know:

  • It’s normal to want to make them feel better.  Most often, that may not be possible or what they need.  But you can let them know that they have people who are there for them.
  • They are  going be in a lot of different states.  “Sorry for your loss”, loss is exactly right.  They have just lost a big piece of their lives, and they are trying to figure out how they feel, and how to adjust to a new reality that they don’t want.  Some times they will need to be left alone, sometimes they will need to talk, and sometimes they will need distraction and to just feel normal.  And often they won’t know.  The best thing to do is not make any assumptions, instead just ask them.  Ask them how they are feeling and really want to take the time to hear what they have to say.  Sometimes, just getting a chance to put that into words can let them feel better, or just heard.
  • It’s going to take a while:  Be patient, and be there for them for the long term. This stuff comes in waves…everything is normal, and then it rushes back.  It’s good for them to know that they have friends who won’t think there is anything wrong if they are sad again after everything is supposed to be better.

For all of us, this is hard. All of us will deal with it at some time or another, just way too soon for some.  But if you are a friend, don’t stay away for fear of doing the wrong thing, and if it’s you, you don’t have to be alone.  We’ll just be patient enough to stumble around and figure it out together.


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