I’ve buried a lot of people over the last 36 years. My grandfather died when I was five, the first loss I would deal with. The first brush with death I would face. My father died when I was 12. He passed quickly, suddenly, from a ruptured brain aneurysm. He was 39. My grandmother — and second mother — died when I was 30, three months after I gave birth to my first born. After welcoming my little girl. And my mother passed in June.
I found her, face down and clinging to consciousness, in her apartment.
She was sick, very sick, and had been for a long time.
And while, in her case, she may be “in a better place” — she struggled, physically and emotionally; addiction ravaged her body; mental illness stole her mind — I’m tired of hearing the deceased are better off dead. The phrase is riddled with problems. It is bullshit, through and through. Why? Because saying someone is better off dead diminishes the value of their life. It is presumptuous and pretentious, flippant and dismissive. It also minimizes an individual’s grief, as Amy Morin — a psychotherapist and the editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind — explains:
“Saying things like ‘they’re in a better place’ or ‘at least they’re not suffering’ doesn’t make someone feel better when they’re grieving. You don’t need to point out silver linings. The other person won’t necessarily see it as a ‘bright spot.’ Plus, your job isn’t to ‘cheer them up’ or drag them out if they aren’t feeling up to it.”
Morin adds. “Instead, let them cry, get angry, or just be. Show them that you’re willing to be with them even when it’s uncomfortable.”
Make no mistake: I’ve never felt more love or support than I did in the days and weeks after my mother’s passing — and my father’s. Friends and family members came to our aid, offering hugs and love. Flowers were sent. Meals were delivered. Donations were made. People checked in on me regularly. Frequently. I received dozens of calls and texts, but that is when the trouble started because the more people attempted to console me, the more they hurt me.
I heard things like “Don’t worry; it’s part of God’s plan” and “At least she’s resting now. She’s at peace.” I also heard the dreaded aforementioned words, “She’s in a better place.” But is death really better? Both my parents were fine here. Plus, “better” is contingent on your beliefs, and I’m not sure there is an afterlife. So is nothing “better?”
Is “better” sitting in an urn six feet below the surface?
Is it really “better” to be buried in a vault in the cold ground?
That said, there are ways to successfully support individuals through grief — and after loss. “The most important thing you can do is sit with someone who is in emotional pain,” Morin says. “While it’s hard to watch them suffer, being there is the single kindest thing you can do. You can also say things like, ‘I’m with you’ or ‘I know this hurts.’ Simply acknowledge that you understand they’re in pain and make it clear that they don’t need to act as if they are OK.”
Dina Wirick, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice and a psychology instructor at California State University, Monterey Bay, tells Scary Mommy that speaking about the dead is important. “If you know the person who died, offer a kind remark about them or a lovely memory. People generally like hearing about the person they lost and it’s hard when people stop saying their name.”
And John Sovec, a therapist in Pasadena, California, suggests offering support in a very basic but important way: “The best way to support a person who is grieving is to simply ask them if they need anything and be willing to support them on the most basic level of needs. Running errands, helping to clean, taking care of the kids are all simple ways to support someone who is grieving.”
As for phrases you should stay away from, avoid saying things like “I know how you feel” because, in truth, none of us knows how another person is feeling, and phrases like this can marginalize grief. They take away from the person and their process. Try not to make dismissive remarks and platitudes, like “At least he/she is no longer in pain” and/or “At least he/she lived a long life,” and don’t remind the living of the things they should be thankful for. Gratitude comes in time, but in the days, weeks, and months following loss, there needs to be space for anger and sadness. For frustration, grief, and fear.
Make no mistake: Grief is complex and complicated. You will (inadvertently) mess up. But you shouldn’t avoid people for fear of saying the wrong thing. Rather, be present. Be persistent. Show sympathy. Exhibit empathy, and think about what you would want to hear — and, more importantly, what you would need.