How To Say the Right Thing at the Worst Time

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S1: Those first days were shock. And to be totally blunt about it, a lot of screaming. The reality of what happened honestly took years to unfold piece by piece by piece.

S2: Two and three years later, I would go to a column where I would see something I thought was really cool that he would like and I would go to text him. It’s like part of your brain doesn’t get the memo that your person died.

S3: Welcome to How to. I’m Troll’s. Do it right now is a really hard time.

S4: And if you’re anything like me, you have friends or family members who are struggling with loss or maybe your mourning someone yourself. How we process that grief and in how we can. So others. Those are really hard questions. Even in the best of times, it’s sometimes not clear how to help other people, which is at the core of a question we got a few months ago from Ann in Arizona.

S5: Well, I reached out because a few weeks ago my one of my brother in law’s died. I immediately talked to my dad about it. And my my sister and brother in law live out of state.

S6: And my dad was kind of telling me, you know, you should give her space. Don’t contact her right away. And in the past, when I’ve been around people who have lost family members, I’ve kind of felt like a deer in headlights. And I usually don’t say much, but I know when I was grieving last year, when people did that to me, it hurt because I felt like they didn’t care.

S7: And tell me a little bit about what happened last year and your experiences with grief.

S5: Well, I mean, this isn’t the only experience I’ve had with grief.

S6: I’ve definitely had some other losses. But last year I had what was a very sudden miscarriage. I was 13 weeks along. So it’s very, very unexpected. But it was also my third miscarriage. So it was sort of the most traumatic experience I’ve had and maybe my whole life.

S5: I felt very alone and isolated.

S7: Yeah. Did did anyone reach out to you to to offer you condolences?

S5: Oh, yeah. A few people did.

S6: I wrote something about it on Facebook because I wanted to tell people because I was hurting a lot. And some people were very sweet and, you know, sympathetic. But other people said some things that were kind of painful, like, oh, well, I’m sure you can have another one.

S5: Or things like that that aren’t really helpful.

S7: I know how hard it is. My father passed away a few years ago and I was surprised at how how different the reaction of different people was.

S5: I mean, I’ve been on both sides. I’m sure I have made the error of saying the wrong thing or saying nothing. But I also I think a lot of people don’t know how to respond. And I guess I was just looking for some guidelines.

S3: We could all use some guidelines, especially right now. And so we found someone who might be able to help.

S2: My name is Meghan Devine. I’m a psychotherapist and a writer and a grief advocate. So I talk a lot about grief and loss and the ways that life goes sideways. When you least expect it to.

S4: On today’s show, Megan will give us tips about how to work through our grief and how she worked through grief of her own in ways that might surprise you. More after this quick break.

S3: A little over 10 years ago, Megan Devine and Matt, her partner of five years, went for a walk near where they lived in Maine. It had been raining for weeks. And this was the first really nice day in a while. And as they were walking through the woods, Matt decided to go for a swim in the river.

S2: And Matt was an amazing athlete. He was really skilled in the water and the woods. So we never worried about him being out in a river.

S8: But the river that day was really fast. There was an undercurrent that hadn’t been there the millions of times we’d been at the river before and that got stuck in the currents and was carried down the river. I went into the water after him to help and also got carried down the river. I just happened to get spit back out on the shore and he did not.

S4: Megan was actually pulled two miles downstream before she could make it back to shore.

S9: It would be another three hours before search teams found Matt’s body when they did. Megan was in a state of shock.

S8: Well, first horror. I don’t think that our brains can allow in the full force of something like that all at once. I think there’s a protective mechanism in there. This is why people go into shock. It’s the body’s way of protecting the organism from the enormity of the situation.

S10: But almost immediately, Megan had to start dealing with bad stuff. There was a lot of stuff that needed to happen. Matt and I were picking up my stepson from the airport that day.

S1: He was actually coming back from a visit to his mom. And I had to figure out who was going to pick him up and what they were going to tell him. I had to go meet my son and sit him down at the house and talk him through how his dad died. There were funeral arrangements to be made. There were in-laws to be called for me. Shifting into tactical mode. Was the way that I survived for the first couple of weeks.

S4: One thing that made her days harder were what some people were saying to try and comfort her. Everyone meant well, but sometimes what they said was the opposite of what she needed to hear.

S1: I realize that what we say to people when they’re in pain isn’t necessarily helpful. I heard so much stuff from friends, from family members, from fellow therapists, just around resilience, around, bouncing back around, not letting his sudden death, quote, unquote, wreck my life.

S7: How did that make you feel?

S11: Oh, it it made me feel like nobody understood me. Right. Like they’re minimizing you, right?

S1: Exactly. When people would say you’re so strong and you’re so smart, you’re going to find a way to get through this. The way that felt for me was don’t feel the way that you feel. Stop letting this upset you. I actually overheard people in coffee shops say she must not have been a very good therapist if something like this upsets her.

S5: Wow, that’s terrible.

S1: Isn’t it? I think, you know, we we just really believe that our job is to cheer somebody up. So I was on the receiving end of a whole lot of cheering up. And it it does have that effect of making you feel invisible and misunderstood. And for me, at a time when I already felt like a freak, when I felt like nobody understood me and nobody had been where I was, it made me feel even more isolated. Because nobody could really just acknowledge the sheer amount of pain that I was in and the shock.

S12: And let me ask you about your brother in law. You said that he passed away. How long ago?

S6: It was about three weeks ago. He died in his sleep. Had sleep apnea and he he got like the flu and it just it you know, it just made his sleep apnea worse. And I think he wasn’t being treated for the sleep apnea. That’s my understanding. So he just woke up. Well, he sort of was gasping and gagging for air and it woke my sister up, but she wasn’t able to save. And I think she tried to do CPR, you know, and it just it was too late.

S7: That’s enormously sad. Yeah. Are you are you close to your sister?

S5: Not really. She’s much younger. We have different moms.

S6: So but, you know, of course, I just it just hurt thinking of the pain that she’s going through. And, you know, what a loss to have to deal with suddenly that, you know, the person that you’re probably closest to in the world. And she had a very, very good marriage.

S7: And have you reached out to her since then?

S6: Oh, yeah, few times. I mean, I, I called her right away, left to voicemail because, you know, understandably, she wasn’t picking up because it was the first day. And then mostly I just texted her since then because I didn’t want to. Like you said before, overstep my bounds.

S7: Were you conflicted at all in what you were like? Did you feel like you you knew what to say to her in those texts or or were you uncertain at all?

S6: Oh, yeah. I mean, definitely. I every time I texted her, I just feel like, you know, am I going to am I going to annoy her? Especially because when I was talking to our dad today, he was telling me that she’s feeling tired of people at work asking her about, you know, the circumstances with her husband’s death.

S4: This is one of the big problems that all of us face when we’re trying to console a friend, knowing what to say and what not to say when someone has just experienced a sudden loss, that can be really hard and awkward.

S1: Well, the whole thing is awkward. Yes. Right. Honestly, I think all of us would relax a lot more around grief if we just let it be awkward. I think a lot of the time we we we try to. Be confident or pretend that we’re confident or pretend we know what we’re doing it. It makes such a big difference if we can just say, like, I feel really awkward about this, but I’m showing up anyway.

S4: Megan says the person who helped her the most during this initial phase of her grief was a friend with a chronic illness.

S1: They’d been on the receiving end of a lot of cheer up, you got this eat your broccoli sort of approach to how we take care of each other. So she knew and she was able to just acknowledge the horror of the situation. And that acknowledgement was was magic to me. What did she say to you? She. She said things like this. This is too much to take in all at once. I need you to drink water and eat whatever you can eat. And she just let me say whatever I needed to say as many times as I needed to say it. And just reflected it back to me. How do we support you while your life falls apart?

S7: What do you think people should do when they’re in a position where they say, I can’t. I can’t even imagine the pain you’re going through.

S1: If my friend had come to me and said, take care of yourself. I’ve lived this. I know what to do. That would have been a very different thing than her saying, have you eaten? Have you had water today? We need to help your body withstand this. That is a subtle difference. Can you hear the difference between the two? The first way saying I’ve been through this. I know what to do. You need to take care of yourself. Is giving advice.

S6: Sounds presumptuous.

S1: It is super presumptuous. Again, well-intentioned but presumptuous. It is thinking, you know, what the other person needs. So when you have your own personal experience, it is really tempting to jump in and you can make them feel like, OK. Well, your experience with your mom was completely different than mine. But I guess we’re talking about you now. Right. So there’s sort of a hijacking of of a grief support conversation that can happen. So you might say something like, I lost my mom three years ago. Obviously, it’s completely different if you have questions or you want to know what it was like for me. I’m totally happy to talk with you about that. You just let me know.

S3: This is our first rule for comforting someone dealing with loss. You want to extend an invitation, but don’t break down the door and force your advice on someone who isn’t asking for it.

S2: And that’s also a way to let somebody feel some control over what’s happening. Right. For many people, especially with a sudden or unexpected death. But honestly, even in a death you have seen coming. There can be a sense of a loss of control. Yeah. And so when we ask and offer, instead of jumping in with our advice, we let that person choose whether that would feel helpful or not.

S3: Coming up, Megan will tell us why she believes the five classic stages of grief no longer make any sense. And what we ought to focus on instead. We’ll be right back.

S4: We’re back with and in our grief expert, Megan Divine. And one thing I’ve been thinking about over the last few years is how do we express grief in an age of social media, like when an old high school classmate says they’ve lost a loved one or a friend of a friend? Post bad news on Facebook. What’s the proper etiquette for sharing condolences or should we just not say anything at all?

S1: Yeah, I think, you know, there can be that sort of drive by compassion. I put my I put my sad face emoji on this person’s poster now. Now I’m done. But I, I think, you know, thinking back to something and said about how we have this sort of temptation to not say anything at all because we’re afraid to say the wrong thing. To say too much, to say too little. So we don’t say anything. And that is really far more hurtful than anything else.

S7: Let me ask you in because because you you mentioned that after after your miscarriage that you posted something on Facebook, in part because because you weren’t hearing from your friends.

S6: Well, it’s interesting. I feel like there’s definitely pros and cons because on one hand, I’ll get a slew of helpful, empathetic people reaching out that will just say, oh, that’s so sad. I’m so sorry. And that feels good because I feel a lot less lonely and it feels like people are acknowledging my pain. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of people that will give those platitudes that Megan was talking about that hurt better, that they’re not helpful.

S5: But when it came to the miscarriage, it just felt so good to let it out in the open to say, you know what?

S6: I know I’m going to get some people that are going to judge me, but I just needed to help the world that I’ve venters to traumatic and end. I’m in pain. So I feel like on the whole, it’s better.

S9: This is the next rule. When in doubt, say something. It doesn’t have to be anything long or profound.

S4: But when people signal that they’re in pain, sometimes the best thing we can do is just to say, I hear you.

S9: And I’m really sorry that you’re hurting. But according to Megan, there’s one thing we should not say, and that’s let me know how I can help.

S1: Let me know is something that people say all the time. And I want to take that apart for a second. Why? That’s not helpful.

S13: If your life just went sideways, like, let’s let’s use my example that I was talking about previously when Matt died, I had his stepson to tell about what happened to be there for him. I had my in-laws. I had my family. I had funeral arrangements to make. I had, you know, my own. What the hell just happened? Going on all of those things.

S1: So when somebody would show up and say, let me know if you need anything. When was I gonna have time to do that? If we think about like how often in normal daily life you get stressed out and you feel like you could use a hand. How often do you actually ask somebody for help? Yeah, not very often. We are a culture of people who don’t tend to ask for help, especially when we’re really struggling.

S7: So what’s a better way to do that?

S1: Because you don’t want to force down someone you don’t. So being concrete instead of vague is the answer to this particular problem. So instead of saying, let me know if you need anything, think about the things that you could offer. And also think about what that other person might need.

S4: Here’s another rule. Instead of asking people to let you know what they need, anticipate what that is and act on it, find something that you know will be helpful to them. And then volunteer to do it.

S1: So if you know that the kids need to get to soccer practice and mom just lost her husband, you could in a text message or in a voicemail say, I know that the kids have to get back and forth to soccer practice. I am very happy to drive them, pick them up and bring them home Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday. Would that be helpful for you? Concrete, tangible offers that the person can either ignore or say yes or say no.

S7: Do you remember after Matt passed due to any specific offer, stand out in your mind that your friends may.

S1: Oh, my gosh. People were so good. I have had an old friend of mine is a Unitarian minister, and she took over calling all of the funeral homes to find out the whole process of cremation and what we needed to do and what paperwork we needed. I didn’t have it in me to make all of those phone calls. And I had one friend who is an excellent cook. And she delivered food every single day. And she didn’t call me up every morning and say, what do you feel like today? She made something. She dropped it off at the front door. I could come out and get it if I wanted to.

S7: And let me ask you let’s try and workshopped this a little bit, okay? If you were to if you were to write an email to your sister. Drawing on what Megan was talking about.

S6: What occurs to you, it sounds like I should just be honest about the fact that I’m feeling awkward because I would like to help, but I don’t necessarily know what she needs or what the best help is. And I would certainly tell her that I am happy to hear her just talk and and just be there for her. Just be a physical presence for her if she needs to vent or get something off her chest and then give her some concrete offers of what I can do to help and let her decide whether or not she wants any of that help or or just back off if she doesn’t.

S1: I think that’s lovely. And I love that idea of offering her some concrete things. I am happy to set up meal delivery for you. I can do that from a distance, if that would feel helpful. I’m happy to research. Spend some time online and look for resources to help you with the kids. If that would feel useful. I am also really happy to just to pick up the phone and listen to you rant about whatever you want to rant without trying to cheer you up or make it different and not try to fix them.

S14: This is the next rule. When you feel the urge to help someone who is coping with a loss, don’t try to fix everything. Instead, stop and ask the person, do you need a solution right now or do you just need to be heard?

S15: I definitely agree because the people who I I remember talking to that I felt like were most helpful. They just listened. And the most they would say is, well, that hurts, you know? And they didn’t try to fix it because you can’t fix it when somebody dies.

S5: You just can’t. I mean, you can’t really fix other people’s problems anyway.

S15: But especially a death. I mean, what’s there to fix?

S14: And this brings us to another big topic. You’ve probably heard of the five stages of grief, which is this model for how people deal with loss. But Megan thinks the model’s been misunderstood.

S1: The stages of grief model is is really problematic. Dr. Ross created those stages almost 50 years ago now as a way to help dying people. Understand what they might be feeling when they receive their terminal diagnosis. She never meant them to be used for grief and it wasn’t even you are going to feel these things in this order. It was. Here are some things you might experience. And we want you to know your normal if you’re feeling them. That’s news to a lot of people who have learned either through grad school or pop culture or through movies, that everybody who is grieving needs to go through these five stages of grief and you need to go through them in order. Otherwise, you’re doing it wrong.

S6: And I think the other thing is grief always comes back. It’s like a it’s like an ocean wave. I’ve heard that analogy where, you know, it goes out for a while and that comes back especially because you have those milestones, birthdays, holidays.

S1: And so the thing here is that grief is not something separate from love. It’s part of love. So this idea that grief is something that you do correctly and it’s over. That’s a lie. Yeah. Mat’s son, if he chooses to get married, if he chooses to have children, the milestones he hits in his life, his dad will be there. There is never going to be a time when that doesn’t suck.

S11: Yeah. Yeah.

S1: That doesn’t mean that he hasn’t, quote unquote, done his grief work. That doesn’t mean that he’s in denial or that I’m in denial. If 10 years later, I still go to text him when I see something neat.

S11: All right. That’s love, and that’s the way it works. Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. It’s never going to be OK that he’s dead.

S1: And I have a really beautiful life. I have a really beautiful career where I get to help a lot of people. I only have this specific career because he drowned. That’s never gonna not be weird.

S7: You know, we’re we’re recording this obviously in the beginning of this this corona virus outbreak. And it’s likely that over the next couple of months, we’re going to see on social media and in the news and in phone calls with friends, potentially people we know and love, getting sick or or friends of friends getting sick, people dying, hopefully not not close to us. But do you think we should go and try and console them? Or should we respect their private space and let them have this moment of grief?

S1: I think I would always go with acknowledgement without invading. I keep having this memory come back in my head. In the days after my daughter, I had gone to the coffee shop and I was telling a friend. Probably about what actually happened that day. A close person or somebody in that moment.

S2: I just decided I needed to hear the whole story. That person left after hearing it and the person who was sitting the next table over came over, crouched down by the table next to me, put their hand on the table, not on me, and said, I just want to let you know that I’m sitting right next to you. And I overheard that story. And I can’t not say something. I’m so sorry that happened to. And I hope things feel a little bit more gentle to you today or something like that, just something really sweet and kind. And it was beautiful. How did that make you feel? Loved, honestly. Right. They didn’t invade my boundaries. They didn’t put their arm around me, like, who’s opening their armor on me? They didn’t press for details. They overheard a conversation that they were not invited to. But it was also a very human moment that they didn’t feel like they could ignore. So they made a really beautiful gesture. And this is a crazy, unprecedented, unpredictable, chaotic time with a lot of people scared and a lot of people in pain. And yes, a lot of people will be grieving. And we want to be really brave about opening conversations in areas that are usually pretty scary.

S4: And this is our final rule when all else fails. Find some human moment just to share. It doesn’t matter if we know someone well or or even if they’re a stranger. We can help by letting them know that we’re here. We’re available to them.

S7: You know, I say when my when my father passed away, the responses kind of ran the gamut as as they did for both of you, but that this one editor who lives down the street from me, she wrote this handwritten card and she left it at my house and they just said, I heard that this happened and I’m so sorry. And I can’t even really remember what it said, but I just remember getting ads and that for that moment, it helps. This is so and I think you can make a big I think you will be a big, big support your sister.

S6: Thank you. I mean, I feel very encouraged. I feel like just being able to do this podcast with you guys has been really helpful. And I love all the ideas that I’ve heard. And I think you’re already helping me process my grief, too. Thank you. That’s so nice of you guys.

S14: You are so welcome.

S3: Thank you to Anne for sharing her grief with us and to Megan Devine for her wonderful advice. Make sure to look for her book. It’s okay that you’re not OK. Meeting grief and loss in a culture that doesn’t understand. Also, if you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, there’s a lot more resources at Megan’s Web site. Refuge in grief, dot com. We’ll link to it in our show notes and is a quick update. The last time we checked in with and she wrote us an e-mail saying that she had fallen ill with Koven 19. Here’s what she wrote. Before I got sick, I sent my sister a card in it. I told her almost verbatim what Megan recommended. I’ve also texted her a couple times and I try to follow Megan’s advice, letting my sister know that she can vent and then I’ll just listen. And then she added. Unfortunately, two days after we spoke, one of my aunts also died. So now I’ve been putting these recommendations to work when I reach out to my cousin. It was Providence that we recorded the podcast when we did. Thankfully, today, Ian is feeling better. Do you have a problem that needs solving? Send us a note at how to add Slate dot com and we might be able to help.

S4: That’s how to its slate dot com.

S3: How TOS executive producers Eric Jon. Rachel Allen is a production assistant. And. Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannah Brown. June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcasts, and Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for special thanks to Aisha Solutia and Son Park. I’m Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening.