Stephen King Taught Me What Not to Say to a Person Who is Grieving
Some of the best advice I’ve ever received on what to say to someone who is grieving came from Stephen King.
Or better said, what not to say.
I read Pet Sematary back in high school. Like all Stephen King novels, it’s creepy and at times profane but is also filled with tremendous insights into humanity. Louis Creed — the main character in the novel — loses his infant son Gage when the toddler wanders into the street and is killed by a speeding truck. In one brief moment, Louis’s life comes crashing down around him.
At the funeral, Louis is barely hanging on. He stands next to his son’s tiny casket while mourners approach and offer sympathetic words of comfort. But rather than bringing relief, their words make him angry. He wants to scream.
I understand why.
What Not to Say
Grief brings a person’s emotions to the surface. All of them. Pain shreds our defense mechanisms. A person in the throes of grief can quickly switch from tears to laughter to anger. And it’s this emotional volatility that makes it difficult to know what to say and what not to say to someone in anguish.
Back to Pet Sematary. The people coming through the line at the funeral were trying to lift up his spirits by saying things like this:
“He’s in a better place.”
“At least he died quickly. He didn’t suffer.”
“You’ll feel better soon. You’ll see.”
Have you made similar statements before? Each statement is true but each is terribly out of place in that moment. Even a truism can be hurtful when said at the wrong time. Louis didn’t want to hear it would get better. Not in that moment. His pain was too raw.
What he wanted to hear someone say was, “I hate this! It’s horrible what happened. This just isn’t fair.”
King taught me that there are no special words, no silver bullet that will remove a person’s grief. And we shouldn’t look for one.
Christians are often more guilty of this than others. The Christian faith is an unspeakably profound comfort. But in our earnest to comfort a friend we sometimes pull out a verse or two and lay them on the person like some sort of magic spell. We think we’re giving comfort, but to the person in grief, our words feel like a tiny band-aid on a gaping wound.
The time will come when it’ll be appropriate to share hope, but in the early days of grief it’s best to simply weep with those who weep.
A Few Things You Might Want to Say
So, what should you say? That depends on the relationship you have with the person. But here are a few thoughts:
- “I know your pain is searing. You two had a wonderful marriage/relationship. The deeper the love, the more terrible the pain of loss. So, please, take as long as you need to grieve deeply.”
- “I don’t know what to say other than I am so terribly sorry. And I love you.”
- “This whole thing…I hate it. If you need me, I will walk with you through this, no matter how long it takes.”
- “Keep grieving. Take as much time as you need. Lean on friends and family when you need to, but don’t be afraid to separate yourself from others when you need to. There’s no right way to do this.”
The most important thing is to be authentic. It’s counter-intuitive, but don’t try to cheer them up when the pain is fresh; at least not now. Just grieve with them.
In the days that follow, make yourself available to the person. Don’t worry if you don’t know exactly what to say. As a pastor friend of mine once said, “There is great healing in presence.” In other words, just be there. Sit with them. Listen. Let them get angry or cry or rail against heaven and earth.
Tell stories about the person who has died. Moments in time when that person made you laugh or taught you something important. It communicates that their loved one had an impact on your life. This is a profound comfort. It’s important for them to know that their wife or husband or child made a difference in your life.
Time and again, I’ve seen this type of approach help the person who is grieving. I’m grateful to Stephen King for sharing that insight.
How have you helped those who have suffered loss? What have others said or done that helped during a time you were grieving? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
(Photo Credit: Creative Commons – Romain Donato)
On the day my 12 year old lab died about ten years ago, I received lots of kind emails and messages, but one from a good friend stayed with me. She said “I’m so sorry. I know there is nothing I can say that will make you feel better.” That was pretty much it but I’ve never forgotten. It was so honest and true and it meant the world to me. Of course I know a dog isn’t a person, but it still taught me a lesson — when a friend is grieving and you don’t know what to say, just say you’re sorry and admit to them that you’re just as helpless as they are. In a strange way, it will make them feel a little better.
On the other hand, my specific advice to Louis Creed would have been “and by the way, don’t dig up your son and rebury him in the Micmac Indian graveyard. It won’t turn out well.” 🙂
Neal…thanks for the great thought. I think your friend is spot on.
As to your point about the graveyard, I believe Louis Creed learned that lesson right well.