Recently, going through some boxes that had moved with me, unopened, over several moves, I found a stack of cards. It was every sympathy card that I received after my father's death. I was only 18 when my dad died, so many of these cards were from other teenagers - friends, struggling for words. There is a lot I could say about these cards - things I am sure I will write about another day. But there was one that stood out. It was not a card sent in the weeks or months following my dad's death. It was a card sent over a year later.
Just about one year after my father died, my dear friend's father died. This card I found was from her, sent just a couple of months after her father's death. The card was an apology - a note saying that she wished she'd done more for me after my father died, but that she simply hadn't understood. It was not until her own father died that she knew. And with that knowledge came regret - regret for not saying more or doing more for me.
The moment I read the card, which I had forgotten entirely, all my own grief support regrets came flooding in. Before my father's death, I once learned that a friend's brother had died. The death had happened months before and, rather than immediately calling him, I hesitated, thinking it would just be an unwanted reminder. As though he'd somehow forgotten! (palm to head). And I wish I could say that was the only grief support misstep I ever made . . .
Luckily I know I'm Not Alone . . .
I shared this card and my cringe-worthy grief support memories on Instagram, wondering if others could relate. Within minutes responses poured in. In grief, we've all had people say the wrong things or do the wrong thing (or fail to say do anything at all!). But the reality is that many of us haven't just been on the receiving end of that - before our losses, we've been the ones making the missteps.
I was curious just how many people might be with me, so I did a quick Instagram poll. We had 1,945 people respond to this poll. 1,876 of these people (that's 96%) said that, after their loss, they wished they had been a better support to someone else grieving in the past.
On the one hand, these grief support regrets can leave us squirming with shame and writing cards of apology. On the other, it can also allow us a deeper understanding and empathy for those who say or do things that aren't helpful to me in my grief. After a loss, it is hard to remember what it was like not to know or understand the bottomless pit of grief. Recalling these "before" moments, when my own understanding of grief was limited and abstract and misguided, gives me a much deeper empathy for others. It reminds me that with grief, you often don't know until you know. You often can't know until you know. People are often doing their best and screwing it. We were once doing our bests and screwing it up.
Incredibly Common Grief Support Regrets (from those Grieving)
We received literally hundreds of grief regrets in just the 24 hour window that people could submit them. Though each was unique, there were some common themes and submissions that stood out. Below are 64 of the most common grief support regrets that people had as they looked back on their own grief.
- I should have checked in more regularly and months later. It doesn't get better in a couple of weeks or months.
- Never mentioning their loved one out of concern that it would 'upset' or 'remind' them.
- Believing that saying nothing was better than saying the wrong thing.
- Thinking that grief was only a reaction to death, so not realizing my friends were grieving when they went through a divorce, lost friends, lost a job, etc.
- Sending mass cards instead of sympathy cards with a personal message.
- Only reaching out on social media instead of sending a physical card.
- I didn't send a card or a gift because I felt like we weren't close enough and they might find it strange that I sent something.
- Thinking (and saying) that time will heal.
- Telling them I understood when I had no idea.
- Though it was well intentioned, I was overly intrusive. I insisted on staying at the persons house and later coming by every day. It was too much, but I thought I knew best.
- I thought that there is a timeframe to grief and that because they outwardly seemed better that meant they were no longer grieving.
- Not attending a funeral because we weren't that close. Now I know how much it means when people attend.
- Distancing myself and not checking in or inviting them to things because I assumed they needed space. I should have asked what they needed.
- Showing up when I wasn't wanted or needed because I wanted to feel useful.
- Avoiding a friend because I was so uncomfortable and didn't know what to say.
- Being didactic simply because I had experienced grief before.
- I assumed what would be helpful for me was going to help them in their grief.
- Calling someone "strong" and praising them for being "strong". Now I know that creates a pressure and makes people feel like they can't show their pain.
- I regret the judgement I subconsiously had when people were still posting about their loved one months or years later. I didn't understand that grief is so ongoing.
- Using platitudes like "at least they're no longer suffering or anything I said with "at least"
- Not remebering the death anniversary date or other important dates.
- I should have visited my friend who was dying of cancer (and her family). I thought they would only want their closest friends and family there and I would be intruding.
- Not thinking to check in at the holidays.
- We didn't invite someone to a party, assuming they wouldn't want to come. We should have just asked.
- I wish I'd reached out on National Siblings Day to friends who lost siblings.
- Not reaching out on hard days - I wish I'd reached out on Mothers Day and Fathers Day to friends who had lost a parent.
- I used toxic positivity, encouraging people to look for the silver lining and stay positive, rather than just letting them be with their feelings.
- I asked a friend who had a miscarriage why she hadn't started trying again.
- My partner and I didn't realize infertility caused grief until we went through it. We had not been supportive to friends in the past.
- Trying to connect with someone by talking about my grief instead of listening to them.
- I shouldn't have used religion to try to ease their pain when I didn't know what they believed.
- I told someone that once they get through the funeral, the hardest part will be over.
- Always trying to turn the conversation to a promise of happier times to come.
- On several occassions I encouraged friends grieving to stay busy, which I now see was just me telling them to avoid their grief.
- Being afraid to ask them questions about the person who died, like their favorite memory.
- My coworker's husband died and I knew she might not have someone to spend the holidays with. Because we weren't that close outside of work, I hesitated on inviting her to my holiday because I worried she would think it was weird or pity. Now I wish I had invited her.
- I talked more than I listened.
- I met an elderly woman at church and during our conversation she shared a tattered, 50+ year old picture of her baby that died. She was tearful sharing her story. I didn't understand why she "still felt sad". I had a baby five years later who died at 15 weeks. And then I completely understood that carrying around a picture of my dead child is absolutely normal.
- Now that I have had a miscarriage and (or) struggled with infertility, I regret asking people without children questions about why they hadn't had children yet. It wasn't my business and you never know what people are going through.
- Telling friends that the person who died "wouldn't want them to be sad" or would "want them to be happy again". I didn't realize until I lost someone how presumptious and unhelpful that comment is.
- Instead of saying "how are you?" (when of course the answer is 'terrible') I wish I had said, 'how are you grieving' or 'how are you coping' or something that better acknowledged the reality of grief.
- I used to think if someone was back out doing things and smiling that meant they had finished grieving.
- Making jokes to deflect my discomfort when that wasn't what the other person needed.
- I judged a friend who was taking photos at the funeral for her father. Now I understand that nothing is right or wrong. Honestly, the funeral for my brother was such a blur - I kind of wish now that I had pictures.
- I cringe when I look back and remember that I pushed a friend who was widowed about starting to date again. I thought I was being helpful, but of course I was actually rushing her.
- Not cancelling a trip to attend a funeral. I didn't understand how important it was for people to be there until my own loss.
- For years I just sent flowers or made a donation - I never wrote a personal sympathy card. Now I always do.
- Not supporting my own grief - I was 11 when my dad passed away and I pretended I was okay and didn't cry
- I thought what mattered was saying the right thing, when really what mattered was showing up.
- I assumed that faith in God was more comforting in grief than it actually is. The person is still gone from your life and faith doesn't chage that pain.
- Saying "you'll get through this".
- Not taking their grief seriously after months had passed.
- I remember telling friends that their loved one would "always be with them" and thinking it was comforting. When my brother died I hated it when people said that.
- I just assumed after someone has a miscarriage they can just get pregnant again. I didn't consider that they may never be able to get pregnant again.
- Trying to always make my friend feel better when she just wanted me to sit with her pain.
- Saying "oh, so they were older". I still cringe when I think about it - as if age matters.
- I said "things will go back to normal".
- I didn't bring a meal because of a stupid logistical issue.
- Using cliches like "God's timing" and "everything happens for a reason".
- I asked a friend whose son died of an overdose what she wanted me to tell people about how he died, as though she should be embarassed or should lie about the cause of death. I hate thinking of the fact that I did that.
- I'm 33 and still think about avoiding that boy in 8th grade whose dad died.
- Thinking that "death is a part of life" when wondering why people were still grieving. Now I understand.
- Drinking with my friend at her father's funeral. I should have been clearheaded for her.
- I judged so harshly my friend's har. Now I'm CONVICED that 'grief hair' is A THING.
Have your own grief support regrets? Don't be shy, 96% of us do! Leave a comment!
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What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
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