Grief: Better To Say The Wrong Thing Than Nothing At All

Give InKind is honored to feature New York Times bestselling author David Shafer. Shafer is the author of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. His work has appeared in Salon, The New York Times, and The Irish Times.

There are prescribed words we use when we wish to express love and comfort to a friend hit by one of life’s trials. There are even prescribed responses to the prescribed phrases.

“I’m so sorry for your loss."

“Well, she led a full life."

“I’m sure you’ll be better in no time."

“Yes, they say they caught it early."

It is folk knowledge, when and how to deploy such language, and it can help the situation if neither party really wants to get into it. Like if it’s one of the more-or-less to be anticipated life events. It’s baseline human consideration. The sayer is trying to say: I see that you are going through this. The hearer is saying: Thank you for seeing that I’m going through this.

But it becomes more difficult when the grief is one of the monsters we all actually hope to avoid. These are a few grades above the inevitable (and still very painful) losses we will accrue if we live long enough.

I could not list or specify these monsters, but when one of them swoops in near us, there is an unhelpful instinct to say nothing to the one the monster grabbed. I have that instinct anyway, and my brain can make some convincing arguments for not reaching out, usually some variant of I should let them have a little time with this. Or What can one possibly say? But that instinct has a strand of unintended hubris in it: I want to say just the right thing. And a strand of shame: I won’t be able to say the right thing.  A fear, even: My words will be inadequate.

I have learned – I am learning – to veer the other way in these situations, to risk saying the wrong thing.

The only notes I really need to avoid hitting are Well it’s probably for the best, or You’ll get over this one day. (And, hey, if I should drop a real clanger like that, my grief-stricken friend may even get the brief pleasure of setting me straight on those points.)

So I try to type the words. I try not to hesitate. I press send. I did so just a few days ago. Who knows if the missive brought any relief to its recipients? I don’t. I wrote to them of their child maybe one day visiting me as a ghost and rendering me aid. That might have bombed.

But loneliness compounds every grief, and I have a talisman to ward off loneliness. It’s a dinky little talisman, and should be used in combination with other talismans. It’s me – suddenly present, popping out of the ether to say:

My God I can’t imagine and I love you and my heart is cracking for you and if I could I would take a tiny piece of this off of your shoulders. But I can’t. Is there anything else I can do? Anything. I can bring you Nutter-Butters and mis-operate your appliances while you weep ceaselessly or watch daytime TV with a flattened affect. I don’t want to be in your face, I just want you to know I’m behind you now.

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