Ok, I have been on both sides of this one and I have to say it’s much easier to be the sympathiser once you’ve been on the coal face, so to speak.
It’s really hard to know what to say when you come face to face with a friend or acquaintance who has just lost someone very close to them. It’s awful and chances are they are still in shock and feel incredibly uncomfortable about it themselves or (as I did) incredibly numb and surreal. My go to opener? “I’m really sorry to hear about [INSERT LOVED ONE’S NAME HERE], it’s really shit to lose someone you love”. Simple, elegant and to the point. No pressure put on respondent to say anything or do anything – this is key.
Here’s the thing; you don’t know how that person feels. Even if you’ve been in their position, you still don’t know so it’s best to just acknowledge how crap it is. Even if it hasn’t hit them yet, they’ll be able to relate to that comment. It also doesn’t lead to any expectation being laid on them.
The thing no one tells you about being the “loved one”: no one warns you about “the death face”.
Since losing my mum I’ve made it my mission to warn anyone I know that they’ll be expected to react to what I call “the death face”. Don’t get me wrong, people showing you TDF do it out of sympathy and love, but that doesn’t make it any less weird!
TDF is when someone walks up to you (usually putting a hand on your shoulder) tilts their head, gives you puppy eyes and puts on the singularly saddest face you’ve ever seen while saying something like “I’m so sorry”. If you’ve only just lost said person it’s not completely out with the realms of possibility that you’ll want to laugh at this point. Seriously. Shock can have a strange effect on our impulses. The issue for said “loved one” is that you want to scream at “death face”. WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME? DO YOU EXPECT ME TO CRY NOW? WOULD THAT MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER?
Of course they don’t really want to make you cry. But when you’re on the receiving end it feels like that’s what’s expected. As the loved one left behind you’ll often feel like it’s your job to make everyone else feel better. Sometimes that’s good, I kind of hid behind that for a while to be honest and it suited me just fine. I was queen of inappropriate jokes when my mum died and thoroughly enjoyed coming up with new and interesting ways to respond to TDF (my favourite was to shove a baby in their face, worked a treat! I’m eternally grateful to my niece Isla for providing this valuable service). So my advice for both sides (for what it’s worth) is as follows.
- Don’t do “death face”
- Acknowledge that it’s a shit / horrible thing to happen
- Listen and distract as required
Left over loved one:
- Accept that most people will not know what to say to you
- It’s not your job to make them feel better so it’s ok to do whatever you need to get through it, including making inappropriate jokes
- Prepare responses to the death face (get into the habit of carrying a baby / puppy around at all times for at least the first 3 weeks post funeral)
What did you do to get through?
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