When I was in my early twenties, my friend’s mother passed away. She had been battling cancer for around three years and was cared for at home by her two children, husband, and a health care team.
I didn’t know what to do.
My first instinct was to let her know that I was thinking of her, that I was there if she needed anything, and to tell her that I was sorry for her loss. I thought I should stay away to give her and her family space.
When I passed on these instincts to a mutual friend, she said, “No. I think we should cook a meal that can be heated up to eat when they’re ready for it. We should stop by her house and be prepared to stay or leave. We have to do something.” So, that’s what we did.
I am so grateful for this friend’s advice. By showing up and offering a hug and a meal, we let our friend know that we cared and we eased some of the day-to-day stress by taking one thing off her to-do list.
What strikes me all these years later is my initial reaction to my friend’s loss. Death is something that we all have to deal with at some point in our lives, and it is never easy. So why is it hard for so many of us to know what to do, or what to say?
Sheryl Sandberg worked with psychologist Adam Grant to address this topic in her latest book, Option B. They call it “the elephant in the room.”
SHERYL: When I saw someone two weeks after Dave died, or even two months, and they didn’t acknowledge it at all, I felt totally invisible. I felt like they didn’t get it at all, and I felt really alone. And I know that just like I had done, when I was on the other side, they just didn’t know what to say, so they didn’t say anything at all.
ADAM: Psychologists years ago came up with a term for this. They called it the Mum Effect.
The Mum Effect: People avoid discussing upsetting topics
ADAM: Knowing that nobody likes to pass along bad news. Some people are afraid that, you know, the messenger will be shot.
ADAM: But in other cases, you know, it’s just as likely that people don’t want to remind others of something painful. One way that people are able to overcome the Mum Effect is to open up. To say, hey, you know, this is what I’m going through.
“I think the most important thing we can do for someone who is dealing with hardship is to acknowledge it,” says Sandberg. People often stay silent because they don’t want to remind someone of the pain they’re experiencing, as if it would take another person to remember. “The problem with that silence is that it doesn’t acknowledge pain.”
It can be challenging to know what to say or what to do when someone is suffering, but it is not harder than what the other person is going through. If you’re struggling to know what to say or do for someone who has lost a loved one, here are 5 examples:
“I know you’re suffering, and I’m here to talk if you want to.”
– Sheryl Sandberg
“How are you doing today?”
– Sheryl Sandberg (Sandberg believes that including “today” in this question is a short-hand way of letting the person know that you are aware they are going through a hard time, and that you want to know how they’re doing in that moment.)
“I’m sorry for whatever challenges might lie ahead for you, but I’m here and willing to help. Would it be okay if I call next week just to check in with you?”
– Ed Preston, The Elephant Journal
Phone calls, emails, and text messages are great, but showing up (with no expectations to stay) with a hot meal will have more of an impact.
The sentiment behind statements like, “Let me know if there’s anything you need,” is a kind one, but when someone is in pain it can be hard to reach out. Ask the person what their favourite breakfast is and bring it. Ask when you can come to do their dishes and wash their clothes.
Have you lost a loved one? What helped? What hurt? We’d love to hear from you.
For more posts on coping with grief, read this, this, or this.
Cassandra Van Dyck