I spent last Saturday on a series of phone calls with friends and relatives who were dealing with death, disability, or disease. Parents had died or spouses were in hospice. They were experiencing different degrees of profound grief.
I responded to each person by saying “I’m sorry.” Why was that expression of regret my initial response? I certainly wasn’t assuming responsibility. Their loss or situation couldn’t possibly be my fault. But it caused me to reflect on the use of the simple two-word phrase.
Obviously, saying “I’m sorry” is a classic expression of condolence, stated at a time when words fail to adequately communicate empathy or compassion. Responding to another person’s grief is often awkward and rings hollow. Understandably, the stock phrase has become an automatic, rather knee-jerk, utterance.
A friend -- whose father had just died after four years of serial hospitalizations and rehabilitations – responded that the phrase caused a Pavlovian response; it became a trigger for tears. She stated that she could speak without her voice cracking until someone stated those two words. I assured her that I would not offer or resort to platitudes.
I quickly decided to adopt a new policy. I would refrain from responding with the use of phrases such as “I hope he died peacefully” or “thankfully he is no longer in pain or suffering.” Do people really derive solace from or appreciate such sentiments? While the issuers are well-intentioned, the phrases have become so overused to the point where they have become almost meaningless. They can be construed as mere placeholders to fill uncomfortable conversational voids.
So how can we effectively communicate our compassion and offer comfort to those grappling with grief and loss?
As appropriate, try to replace “I’m sorry” with “I love you” or “I’m here for you.” Perhaps reminiscing or recalling an endearing anecdote can engender feelings of warmth and connectedness. Sometimes just the simple act of listening is sufficient. Offering support during the difficult days to come may be most appreciated. Maybe offer to complete errands and conduct relatively mundane but necessary tasks. The expressions of sentiment and support will need to be tailored to the personality of, relationship with, and geographic proximity to the person experiencing grief.
Indeed, over the past year, expressions of sympathy and support have become incredibly challenging. The scourge of the coronavirus, which caused so many deaths, cruelly cancelled the ability to conduct funerals, wakes, Shivas, and other cultural and religious rites. Talk about adding extreme insult to incredible injury. While it was difficult enough to deal with the death of loved ones prior to the pandemic, social distancing guidelines have eliminated the ability to find solace in community. The warmth of interpersonal embrace and interaction has been replaced with virtual hugs and embraces. Zooming into a graveside funeral feels like an act of voyeurism. All of this is completely cold and counterintuitive. However, until it is safe to attend in person, there’s no good alternative.
Despite all that I have just said, I still feel sorry for my friends, relatives, clients, and colleagues who are grieving and coping with the loss of a loved one. I just won’t tell them that.