By Amy Hoggart
While I made sure to thank the people who were there for me, I noticed that most remained worried about doing and saying the right thing. Ninety-five percent of the time, they naturally did. But sometimes, they absolutely didn’t. As in, really, really didn’t.
I understand the concern. And so in case you’re concerned about how to help a loved one who’s going through something awful, here’s a quick guide based on what I learned from being on the other side.
1. Don’t be sensationalist about it.
I’ve had conversations with people who seem to love bad news and enjoy being shocked. I don’t think they know they do it, but you get the impression your pain is their gossip, some kind of bad-news porn or something. Though if you do enjoy that type of thing, you’re probably not reading this now. Besides, with everything going on in the world today, I’m sure there are plenty of sites catering more for those tastes.
2. Don’t tag grieving relatives in photos of the dead online.
I know the people who put up photos of my father on Facebook after he died to say they missed him thought they were being kind, but every time it knocked the breath out of me to see his face. I was never ready for it. I’m also saying this because I unthinkingly did that exact thing to my brother recently, by sharing an Instagram a photo someone had taken of our dad years ago. Though it was a lovely photo (and a nice reminder of where we get our brown eyes and butt chins from), my brother was at work and not expecting it, and so had gotten pretty upset. Next time I’d message ahead to say I’m about to send a photo to look at in his own time.
3. Don’t only focus on the good.
Finding positives can be great (“they were so loved”; “what a full life they lived”; “this will bring you closer together/make you stronger”; and the like), but don’t Pollyanna the situation. I ran into a neighbor the day after my dad died who was gushing with the stuff she’d read about him in the papers. “I hadn’t realized he was on TV! He did so much! Can’t believe I knew him the whole time and didn’t get him to sign anything! You must be so proud…” Again, I know she meant well, and it’s lovely to celebrate someone’s life, but pick your time. That was not the time.
4. Similarly, don’t put a positive spin on what they’re saying.
Talking to a friend on a particularly tough day once, I gave up trying to keep things light when the situation wasn’t. I told them the truth: “It’s awful. The cancer’s spreading further. His treatment isn’t working. The NHS might not fund a new one, and we might not be able to cover it ourselves. He’s sick, in so much physical pain and growing increasingly depressed. Next week he’s going on vacation with my mum, but he’ll be too weak and uncomfortable to enjoy it, and she’ll be too worried to have a nice time, too.” My friend was sympathetic, but keen to focus on the holiday aspect. When I spoke to a mutual friend a few days later, she said, “So glad to hear your parents are going away! That’s great news!” Both of them love me and my family, and they just wanted to be happy for us for the first time in a while. But I felt like I hadn’t been heard and that I couldn’t be fully honest with them.
5. Don’t compare it to your experience, unless it really is a fitting comparison.
No matter how close you were to your grandparent, Aunty Janet and favorite pet, please don’t liken our experiences. It’s such a natural instinct, but if someone you know died in their 90s while asleep (or was a dog), as opposed to in their 60s after 3.5 years of cancer gradually crippling their system gradually, I’m just not going to want to hear it.
6. Don’t say anything to diminish it.
So their step-mother not their biological mother died? Or something happened to a friend from college they don’t see so much anymore? Perhaps to an ex rather than current partner? It doesn’t matter. If they’re sad, they’re sad.
7. Don’t cross the street to avoid talking to them.
I know quite a few people who have had this happen to them after bad news. My cousin’s wife lost a baby and noticed mothers she knew backing away from her to avoid a chat. What they’re going through is not contagious — but what you’re doing is alienating, insensitive, rude and really hurtful.