My late husband John, died 20 years ago in 1995. My mother died in 2000 and my dad in 2011. About a year ago, my best friend Linda died. (I’ve mentioned her many times the podcast, sometimes in disguise.) She was an incredibly supportive friend—in fact, I used to tell her that she was my biggest “fan.” I loved her like a sister.
A few months before Linda died, her husband Derf (that’s Fred backwards) was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. And just before that devastating news, her only son, Sean (a high school student) was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes. I believe Linda died of a broken heart.
Just two weeks ago, Derf died leaving Sean without parents or grandparents.
Why am I telling you all this? Not for your sympathy, but simply because I think it’s important to share this experience. One day you may encounter someone who has lost a loved one or you may be the one grieving; by reading this, my hope is that you'll have a better understanding of what to say when someone dies.
I’m not really sure why, but we rarely talk about death—it’s seems like it's one of those taboo subjects (at least here in the U.S.). However, it’s something that we should talk about. It’s something that I should talk about, because when someone dies, it's exactly the time when we need to be able to communicate effectively. It's exactly the time we need to be the best possible communicators that we can be —not for ourselves, but for those around us that we love.
Grief Is Not Like You See in the Movies
When my husband died at first I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I wanted the world to stop and for everyone to recognize what a huge loss we all had just sustained. I remember lying on the couch, curled in a ball crying and crying for hours at a time, feeling totally alone. I didn't have to be alone, but I was afraid to let others see the depths of my despair. I didn’t eat. I didn’t clean up the house. I didn’t mow the lawn for weeks. I didn’t do anything. When friends and family reached out to me—I pushed them away. I didn’t want to do anything they suggested. Couldn’t they see? Didn’t they know? I just wanted John back. I just wanted to see him. I needed John, my partner. I know it doesn’t make sense, but I was even mad at John for leaving me alone to deal with his death.
It took time, but eventually I was slowly able to build a new life; moving from “we” to “me” and eventually back to “we” again.
Why I'm Passionate About Communication
Losing John is part of why I'm so passionate about the importance of communication. In fact, in my book, Smart Talk, included a section on what to say when someone is going through a hard time. I explained how when John died, ordinarily talkative people became tongue-tied, or worse, they became silent. Much later, many people told me they had no idea what to say, what to do, or how to help. They were fearful of saying the wrong thing, so they instead opted to say nothing at all—especially people at work. Clearly the situation made them uncomfortable and therefore silent.