Thursday, October 25, 2012

What Not to Say to Someone Who's Just Lost the Love of a Lifetime

First, a quick clarification: By "love of a lifetime," I'm not just talking significant others. I'm referring equally to mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, grandparents, best friends and favorite pets. Someone recently told me about a dog he used to have, one with whom he was so tight that the pooch used to follow him to the bathroom and wait outside while he did his business in the loo. (I guess we do it for dogs, so why shouldn't they do it for us, too?)

I'm sure he needed someone to console him when his beloved dog passed away. I'm glad that someone wasn't me. I'm not particularly good at a great many things, and saying the right thing to a bereaved friend would be right up there on the list of things I generally don't do well. A friend in need is a friend indeed, and when the chips are down, I'll stand by his or her side. I'm loyal like that. But it's so much better for both of us if I hug you, stroke your back, nod in sympathy, do anything but open my mouth.

After all, what do you really say to someone who's just lost the love of his or her life that won't sound terribly cliche? Years ago, a good friend of mine lost her mother, and when she left a message on my answering machine telling me that her mother had died, my heart broke because her mom was such an amazing woman, then fear set in. What would I say when I called her back?

I opted for a simple "I'm so sorry about your mom. She really was a great lady. If you need anything, even just to talk, please call me anytime you want to." It was short and sweet and, I convinced myself as soon as I hung up the phone, all wrong. How could someone who always seemed to know what to say in times of joy get it so wrong now?

I've been wondering about the things we say in times of (other people's) loss while watching General Hospital this week. Three characters were killed in a shoot out by the Port Charles dock -- well, two and a half, since stoic hitman-with-a-heart-of-gold Jason Morgan's body hasn't been found, and we all know what that always means on soaps -- and all around town people who didn't really give a damn about them are going around offering their condolences.

"I'm sorry for your loss."

That one has got to rank right up there with "It is what it is" among the dumbest clichés ever. "Your loss"? So that is what we're calling the death of a beloved spouse, family member or pet these days? "Your loss"? No matter how you say them, those stilted, impersonal words just drip with indifference -- it's like they're talking about a sports game or spilled milk. Even if you're being sincere when issuing such stock words of condolence, it's hard not to utter them without betraying just a hint of "I actually couldn't care less."

Maybe I feel this way because I know that TV characters who say it generally couldn't care less about the deceased and are just saying it because it's the thing to say in such moments (and because the scripts call for it). No one's ever actually said those words to me in real life, but then, it's been several years since I've lost anyone close to me. Back then, "I'm sorry for your loss," like "It is what it is," hadn't yet become such vernacular mainstays. But if I put myself in the shoes of the modern-day bereaved, when I hear "I'm sorry for your loss," all I see is red red red.

A word of advice to all my friends: If you ever find me walking in those shoes, skip all the talk about my "loss," and please, no other clichés (like how he or she is in a better place -- not that anyone has ever said that to me either). You know how much I hate them. A simple "I'm sorry" and a big sincere hug always works wonders. Silence is golden, you know. And in times like these, less said is always so much more.
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