By JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.
Death is part of everyone’s life. However, coping with grief is one of the most uncomfortable and difficult experiences you will ever face. Luckily for women, they instinctively seem to know how to offer comfort and consolation. In addition to being present, women know how to validate the feelings of a grieving person.
Once I heard the story of a little girl who came home late from school. Her mother said, “Susie, I was worried about you. Where have you been?” Susie replied, “On my way home, I saw Mary crying on her porch because her bike was broken. So I stopped to help her. Her mother was impressed: “ Susie, did you help Mary fix her bike? Susie replied, “No, I helped her cry.”
According to author John Gray (“Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus”), women can take comfort in simply understanding the problem. This is not the case with men. A man has to fix the problem (or fix it) to feel better. Especially Japanese men, who come from samurai blood (myself included). They have no idea what to say (or not say) to comfort a grieving heart.
We took lessons in judo or kendo (in my case, both), but not on the experience of life and the pain that comes with it. We are not taught to communicate with others in difficult times. It’s no wonder that people (mostly men) have no idea how to approach a grieving person and often seek the first escape route at the first feeling of embarrassment.
Many men will make the mistake of walking away from the situation until it blows up. However, it can be just as damaging to someone who is grieving as saying the wrong thing. Saying nothing at all or distancing yourself can also alienate you from a recently widowed loved one.
Death does not happen every day. No one expects you to be comfortable talking about death, being with a widow, or discussing a loss. It’s swept under the rug in our society. We are taught that grieving does not happen in public. It happens in private. So walking on eggshells seems like a good idea since you don’t know what to say or are afraid to say the wrong thing.
But, according to “The Ultimate Guide of What to Say to a Widow and Not Walk on Eggshells” (https://kindnessfp.com/what-to-say-to-a-widow/), “Don’t try to walk on eggs around a widow. If you try to step on eggshells, you will fall in. It will be a giant gooey mess.
Instead, know that you’ll be breaking eggshells and that’s a good thing. Once you’ve broken them, you have a solid base to walk on. This solid foundation is what leaves room for better conversation. But just like a samurai warrior trains in battle, you can learn a few phrases or questions that will save you from falling and making a gooey mess.
Sometimes the best way to learn is to learn what you shouldn’t do before you learn what you should do. Usually it’s because the list of “don’ts” is shorter than the list of “do’s”. So let’s start with what not to say about a certified grief counselor, Dr. Alejandra Vasquez, JD, CT. (Source: https://www.joincake.com/blog/what-to-say-to-a-grieving-widow/).
Remember, DON’T SAY:
1. “They’re in a better place.”
When a widow learns that her spouse is in a better place, she will probably disagree with you completely. It doesn’t matter to them that Heaven needs another angel, or that God has a greater plan for them. They will tell you that they need them here with them, or that their children need them just as much. Try saying this alternative phrase instead – “I know it must be hard without them here.” It works because you recognize that their death has created an irreplaceable void in their lives.
2. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Saying this to someone is very insensitive when they are struggling to understand their loss. They may get defensive and ask you to name all the possible reasons why you think their spouse deserved to die. Instead, try saying this alternate phrase: “Sometimes we’ll never understand the reasons why things happen the way they do.” It works because he recognizes that there is no understandable reason why their loved one had to die.
3. “What are you going to do now?”
This well-meaning question can be the breaking point for someone who really doesn’t know what they’re going to do now that their spouse has passed away. They may feel overwhelmed with what to do next and how to deal with everything on their own. Instead, try saying this alternative phrase: “Let’s talk about how I can help you with the next steps.” It works because you’re giving them a solution that will help them figure things out instead of sending them into panic mode.
4. “You will feel better over time.”
When you say this to someone, you imply that it is only a passing thing. Your loved one may resent you for how quickly you discard the relationship they once shared with their spouse. Instead, try saying this alternate phrase: “Take all the time you need to heal from your pain and grief. I’ll be there for you.” It works because you recognize that it’s one of the most painful experiences of their life and you’ll be there to help them through it.
5. “They weren’t the best anyway.”
Keep negative comments and opinions to yourself. This is not the right time to give your opinion on your loved one’s romantic choices. Instead, try saying this alternative phrase: “I’m sorry you had to go through this pain and suffering.” It works because you express your solidarity with your loved one in their pain and suffering without any negative feedback.
6. “I know what you’re going through.”
It can be very offensive to a grieving widow when you say you can understand what she is going through. Even if you are also a widow and have experienced this type of loss, it can be hurtful to compare her pain to your own. Try saying this alternative phrase instead – “It must be really hard for you right now. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. It works because you recognize that losing your spouse isn’t easy. not to mention you and what you’ve been through.
Here are examples of what you should say to a grieving widow. It might be a good idea to learn a phrase or two that you’re comfortable with to help you say the right thing. TRY TO SAY:
7. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
This is the most common and universally accepted phrase that acknowledges their loss without saying too much. When you tell someone, “I’m sorry for your loss,” it’s direct and to the point.
8. “I can’t imagine how you feel.”
When you tell someone that you “can’t” understand how they are feeling, it opens up the possibility of dialogue. They may choose to tell you how they feel, or they may acknowledge you silently. Either way, allow them to take the lead without forcing the conversation.
9. “We all share your grief.”
Expressing that you share your loved one’s grief shows love and support for them. These words are kind and generous without having to say too much.
10. “Take time for yourself.”
Allowing someone else to take care of him can do wonders for him, especially when he feels guilty for the death of his spouse. Let them determine how they will use their time without filling their schedule with your agenda or ideas.
11. “You’re doing a great job.”
We all need a little motivation and encouragement to keep us going sometimes. Praise a job well done without appearing condescending. A simple “You’re doing a great job” reminds them that they’re doing the best they can under the circumstances.
12. “They would be really proud of you.”
It’s another way to encourage your loved one to keep moving forward while acknowledging their loss. Come up with a reason or reasons to tell your friend this from time to time so that they don’t lose hope as they learn to deal with their grief.
13. “I’m here to help you.”
There’s a huge difference between offering to help someone and doing things to help them. Most grieving people find it difficult to ask for and receive help. You can make it easier for them by showing up ready to take on any necessary tasks or chores. You will need to practice your assertiveness when it comes to helping your loved one. Try not to take no for an answer in a loving, caring way. Helping your loved one can also take the form of spiritual and emotional help. They may need a little extra help coping with their loss. Suggest that they pray, meditate, or go with them to a widow support group.
In conclusion, most experts suggest not giving unsolicited advice or solutions, no matter how well intentioned. Think carefully about what you will say when you offer your condolences, whether in person, on social media, or with a condolence card. Try to say the right thing from the start to avoid unintentionally hurting your loved one at a time when they are already in so much pain.
When you do it right, they might not remember what you said years later, but they will remember that you were ready to support them during one of the toughest times in their lives.
Finally, words can accomplish so much, but so can listening and being present. Sometimes showing up and being present to the widower is what is needed the most.
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the law firms of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate planning/Medi-Cal, probate, personal injury, and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.